This review was originally published on February 2, 2013 and referenced the original title of Toy’s House; Review has been edited to reflect the title change…
Inspired in part by one of the ultimate messages of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, labels can equally pre-form one’s expectations when it comes to viewing a film you know nothing about. Before Sundance, the description of Kings of Summer likened it to the next Napoleon Dynamite with a touch of Stand By Me. Based on the varying reactions to Napoleon over the years, that could either be a blessing or a curse. During the festival the name of Back to the Future was invoked. That’s a title of high praise that was not as casually tossed out even the previous year when time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed was garnering acclaim. Dig a little deeper into the occasionally very funny new film by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and one might consider that they had just watched the new Mosquito Coast for teenagers. Intrigued?
Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is living under the thumb of a father (Nick Offerman) doing his best to be a strict disciplinarian. His friend, Patrick (Super 8‘s Gabriel Basso), cannot get a second of privacy in his house with his well-meaning but overtly nosey parents (Marc Evan Jackson & Megan Mullally). After a school party is broken up one night, Joe discovers an uncharted chunk of land isolated in the woods and hits upon an idea. Aided by Patrick and an odd classmate, Biaggio (Moises Arias), with a talent of sidling up unannounced, they set out to gather materials to build their own house.
This house does not exactly come with its own mechanism for making giant ice chunks, but as the masters of their own domain, the three boys begin to learn of life’s trivialities that may have formed the very lives they left behind. Having concocted their own disappearances, the parents are left at the mercy of cartoonish cops (Mary Lynn Rajskub & Thomas Middleditch) just as Joe’s dad must confront his own single parenting style. Further complicating the secretive nature of their isolation is Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who shows up to perhaps pursue her obvious liking of Joe despite being otherwise detained by another suitor.
It is one thing for kids to discover that they are not the hunter/gatherer types and that living off the land is just stupid when there’s a Boston Market nearby. It is another to allow a member of the opposite sex to play the Yoko role as an expedited catalyst for failure. This is the weakest device in Chris Galletta’s script to push Joe towards a greater discovery of how the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree; underwritten to the point that a collection of boys with poor woodworking skills constructing a layered house by themselves becomes the second most unrealistic element of the film.
Where Kings of Summer may come up short in the poignant department of teen growing pains, it more than makes up for it in big laughs which are also streamlined to a limited collection of characters. Robinson and Basso are mostly left to playing it straight, which keeps the film from becoming a more fanciful lark about teenage isolation. Arias, on the other hand, with his equally doe-eyed and bug-eyed delivery of oddball non sequiturs, would normally steal a movie like this if he wasn’t already competing with Offerman.
Fans may have trouble separating his iconic Ron Swanson characterization from the similar annoyed indifference to some of the situations here, but Offerman delivers a fully-rounded performance that gets a big laugh with each uttered breath. He does not just steal the movie but may actually save it from its less-fleshed out aspects. Kings of Summer is what Moonrise Kingdom might have been like if the director’s played-out style and monotone quirkiness had not interfered with its similar tale. As Vogt-Roberts’ film suggests, fantasies are fine, but sometimes the reality is better.