If you want to feel better about the current movie season, take a break from the studio blockbusters and check out “The Kings of Summer,” a quirky, genial crowd-pleaser that probably cost less than the catering bill for one of the franchise mega-productions but delivers a lot more fun than most of them. Like Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” but with greater emotional warmth and less stylistic affectation, it offers a tale of youngsters leaving home that’s touched by magic and good spirits.
The teens are a trio of high-schoolers in a small Ohio town. One is Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), a gangly dreamer in constant friction with his widower dad Frank (Nick Offerman) and infatuated with pretty classmate Kelly (Erin Moriarity). The other is Patrick (Gabriel Brasso), a sturdy, good-natured jock whose parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are sitcom silly types who rub even as sweet a kid as their son the wrong way. After a particularly nasty row with his dad, Joe persuades Patrick that they should build a house for themselves in the woods and live there off the land. They’re joined in the endeavor by Biaggio (Moises Arias), an impish oddball with an unnerving habit of talking in gnomic utterances that have little to do with the conversations around him. And so collecting scraps from wherever they find them, the three construct a ramshackle abode, abandon their home and settle into their new digs.
This is not, it must be said, a remotely realistic scenario any more than “Kingdom” was. But though the finished house has a fairy-tale appearance and Ross Riege’s cinematography gives a glow to the images, the approach taken by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts doesn’t rely on calculated artifice to anywhere near the extent that Anderson did. The result is hardly naturalistic, and the way the narrative progresses isn’t remotely believable—the notion that the boys’ presence in the nearby woods wouldn’t be quickly discovered even by such obtuse cops as those played by Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch, who instead jump to the conclusion that they’ve been abducted, is patently absurd. But the cheekiness with which the script portrays the youngsters’ attempts to forage for food—via secret trips to a nearby Boston Market, as it turns out—is amusing enough, and Vogt-Roberts gets a lot of mileage out of their fooling around in their personal paradise.
Of course unalloyed joy can’t last, and though there’s literally a snake that eventually shows up to wreck this new Eden, the real damage is done—unintentionally—by Kelly, who Joe hopes will be so impressed by his place that she’ll finally link up with him, but is attracted to Patrick instead. That occasions the rupture between the two fast friends that ends their experiment and—for a time—their amity.
But although the youngsters’ adventures are enjoyable, and Basso, Arias and especially Robinson are ingratiating performers who genuinely seem to be having a good time, “The Kings of Summer” would generate far fewer laughs if it weren’t for Offerman. He makes Frank a delightfully grumpy guy whom Chris Galletta has supplied with a stream of funny lines, including a riff with a deliveryman about oversized wonton that could become a staple stand-up routine. Offerman isn’t needed to save the picture, but he improves it enormously. By contrast the other adults in the cast—including Alison Brie as Joe’s sister Heather and Eugene Cordero as her inept boyfriend Colin—have their moments without hijacking their scenes the way he does.
“The Kings of Summer” is an unimaginative title for a movie that breaks no new ground but travels familiar territory in a way that will give you a warm smile.