Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Kings of Summer: This film rules!

The Kings of Summer (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity and teen drinking
By Derrick Bang

This is why I love my job.

The Kings of Summer marks an impressive feature debut for director Joran Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, the latter with nothing more to his credit than a brief 2005 stint as a production staff member for The Late Show with David Letterman. Vogt-Roberts’ résumé includes several shorts and a lot of TV series work, the latter suggesting the hilariously snarky mind set on ample display in this film.

Having more or less completed their new home away from home, our three young
renegades — from left, Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises
Arias) — contemplate the next challenge: putting food on the table. That'll prove far
more difficult than anticipated, since they've no experience with traps, lures, bare-handed
fishing or any other woodsian skills.
Actually, calling this picture “impressive” isn’t nearly strong enough. It’s a sure-fire audience pleaser: one of those so-called “little films” — like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno — guaranteed to take off like a rocket, once word gets out. This year’s enthusiastic Sundance Festival audience certainly thought so, granting a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize (not won, alas).

As a collaborative team, Vogt-Roberts and Galletta demonstrate a striking degree of creative synch; the latter’s dialogue sounds just right coming from the naturalistic ensemble cast, granting a level of verisimilitude that makes these characters feel like the folks next door.

Allowing, that is, for a left-of-center gaggle of eccentrics commonly found in films by Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. But I mean that in the gentlest way: However funny the lines, however warped some of the emotional behavior by sidebar adults, this is — first and foremost — an intimate coming-of-age saga.

In the truest sense of the old cliché, we laugh with our young protagonists, not at them.

The contemporary setting is a smallish town in Northeast Ohio, the sort of all-American community that typifies such narratives. Best friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) are strongly bonded, in part, by their inability to cope with utterly impossible parents.

Joe’s father, Frank (Nick Offerman), hasn’t yet recovered from his wife’s untimely death, years earlier. He has become bitter, condescending and imperious: a combination that doesn’t blend well with a teenage son’s instinctive rebelliousness. Joe’s favorite method of revenge, when sufficiently annoyed, is to summon the local law — personified by the competent Capt. Davis (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and her absolutely useless rookie companion (Thomas Middleditch) — on some trumped-up accusation.

Frank responds to such hijinks the way he deals with everybody: angry sarcasm delivered by Offerman with a relentlessly straight face ... which, of course, makes every bile-fueled line that much funnier. (And they’re pretty funny to begin with.)

Joe’s older sister, Heather (Alison Brie), fled the tension-laced home awhile back, although she still visits. That speaks well of the young woman; her choice of male companions, however, does not. Colin (Eugene Cordero) is a misfit who’s as oblivious to social cues, as he is to the fact that Frank constantly winds him up.

In this case, we can hardly blame Frank; Colin’s much too easy a target. Which Heather is aware of, and Brie’s face is an amusing study in conflict: clearly annoyed by her loutish father, but equally embarrassed by her clueless boyfriend.

Elsewhere, Patrick spends each waking moment smothered by nerdy, overprotective parents — Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson — whose every word and action induces cringes ... both from their son, and from us. Their behavior is beyond ghastly; it’s awkwardly inappropriate to a degree that defies description.

No surprise, then, that Patrick sports an remarkable case of hives; Basso skulks from one room to the next, his body laced with tension, his face eternally set in an anticipatory wince, knowing that he’ll momentarily flinch from some new parental transgression.

The true magnitude of Joe and Patrick’s suffering can be measured by the degree to which they regard high school as a comfort zone ... because we all know how horrible that environment can be.

School has an additional benefit for Joe: closer proximity to Kelly (Erin Moriarty, in a thoughtful, amiable performance), a lively, free-spirited girl he has tracked for awhile. Better yet, it appears that her current relationship might be heading south, leaving her available. Best of all, she seems to enjoy Joe’s company.

But he’s not allowed the opportunity to contemplate this situation. Stung by one too many dismissive acts by his father, Joe decides to run away from home ... albeit not in the usual way. Joe has a plan, and he wants Patrick on board; the latter resists only until his next parental humiliation, at which point he’s all in.

Joe’s grand scheme: to build a home — not a fort, not a tree-house, but an entire multi-room dwelling — in the middle of the dense, nearby woods. A place they can call their own, and where they can call their own shots, unencumbered by parental baggage. Set their own schedule. Hunt and cook their own food.

The very notion is ironic, because — as we’ve already seen, in the film’s opening moments — Joe can’t even construct a bird house.

But that’s a minor detail; enthusiasm and hard work should be sufficient compensation. (In theory.) As the actual “house” rises, it’s a mirthful blend of found materials, stolen bric-a-brac and a couple hundred bucks’ worth of stuff from Home Depot. Production designer Tyler B. Robinson obviously had a great time sorting it all out, and the result looks precisely what unskilled teens might erect.

Patrick is mildly surprised, as this ambitious project begins, to discover that they’ve been joined by a mascot of sorts: Biaggio (Moises Arias), their high school’s token “weird kid.”

“I’m afraid to tell him to leave,” Joe confesses, responding to Patrick’s quite reasonable question. “I don’t know what he’s capable of.”

Arias isn’t merely funny; he’s a revelation. The younger actor has taken everything he learned during five years on television’s Hannah Montana, and channeled it into the sort of career-making performance from which fat contracts are spawned. His line deliveries are impeccably timed, and — like Offerman’s Frank — Arias’ expression always is dead serious. But there’s a difference: Frank is impassively patronizing, whereas Biaggio is simply sincere.

He’s like a lost puppy, desperately wanting to belong; neither Patrick nor Joe could be cruel enough to cast him out. And, so, they become a trio.

Although the subsequent bonding has a euphoric, “boys of summer” spirit that can’t help making all of us feel wistful about our own teenhoods, Vogt-Roberts and Galletta have more serious issues in mind. All three teens have been emotionally stunted by their home environments; however droll and never-entirely-successful this attempt at independence, they’re now in a position to help each other achieve adulthood. Of a sort.

And while Biaggio’s unexpected arrival proves cathartic in a beneficial way — his crazed and increasingly wild antics notwithstanding — the same can’t be said of Joe’s eventual decision to let Kelly in on the secret. Because everybody knows that an all-guy dynamic, particularly one this precarious, can be destroyed by the presence of a woman.

Robinson — a veteran of another tween TV series, Melissa & Joey — is spot-on as our lead protagonist: the guy who drives the action and makes his two companions believe in unspecified possibilities. Joe has no end-game in mind; a moment’s rational thought would reveal that this situation can’t possibly endure. But Robinson grants his performance a deft blend of earnestness and fatalism, and his persuasiveness leaps off the screen; we want to be there, right at his side.

Basso, with a string of credits going back six years, is equally persuasive as the best-friend follower. As a telling scene between the two fathers eventually reveals, Joe has been the instigator of numerous previous, ah, “escapades” involving both boys. This best-bud dynamic is intriguing because it’s counter-intuitive: Basso is the more imposing of the two actors, with the height and weight that ordinarily would make him a leader. But Patrick is a psychiatrist’s manual of insecurities — all persuasively displayed on Basso’s expressive face — and thus looks to Joe for guidance.

Until and unless he can find it elsewhere.

Although the core scenario and various character dynamics are engaging enough on their own, Galletta’s killer dialogue sweetens the pot even further. His lines are to die for, and Vogt-Roberts ensures that each is delivered to maximum potential. Your natural desire to watch this film again will help reveal some choice exchanges that’ll probably get buried the first time, because people will be laughing so hard at the previous lines.

Ryan Miller’s underscore adds a note of poignance at key moments, but I’m less enthralled by the hard rock tunes inserted by the likes of Youth Lagoon, Thin Lizzy and MGMT ... not because they’re inappropriate, but because they’re much too loud, and overwhelm the film’s mostly gentle tone. Sound mixers Ryan Putz and Marlowe Taylor could have done better.

But that’s small stuff. The Kings of Summer is a revelation: equal parts shrewdly perceptive, unexpectedly poignant and continuously uproarious. That’s not easy to sustain for 93 minutes, but Vogt-Roberts and Galletta pull it off: right up to the absolutely perfect final scene.

I can’t wait to see what these guys do next.

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