Whether we admit it or not, many of us subconsciously use our fifteen year old selves, stubbornly rooted deep inside, as a measuring stick to compare how far we have come since the “beginning” of adulthood.
It’s a delicate, tumultuous, dangerous, uneven, and clumsy age – so of course, over the years Hollywood has focused an incredible amount of energy on burning those feelings onto celluloid strips. This latest attempt, Kings of Summer, provides the fast aging millennials a rearview mirror to just a few years ago – before we grew up and started worrying about whale-sized student loans and a job market the size of a tangerine. Unlike its predecessors such as Superbad, Dazed and Confused, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the story is a bit more innocent. The protagonists do not aim their endless youthful energy at drinking, drugs, or getting laid. No, this film shines a lens away from social pressures onto the opposite side of teenaged angst – family.
Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) are coping with two versions of the same monster. Joe’s grumpy father Frank, (played with bitter gusto by hard ass veteran Nick Offerman) insists on running his household with an iron fist. Patrick’s parents, on the opposite end of the spectrum, smother the kid with condescending, mushy love that would make Paris Hilton’s lap dog cringe, (the suburbanite couple are played to a T by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). The film perfectly encapsulates the unnaturally awkward relationship between parents and teenagers – with each viewing the other as an alien life form that has taken over the body of somebody they once knew.
When their parent’s mere existence proves to be too much for the young men, Joe and Patrick decide they have enough life experience and savvy to provide for themselves. They set off into the woods with their hilariously misanthropic yet enthusiastic cohort, Biagio, (Moises Arias, in one of the funniest performances of the year). After stumbling upon a Garden-of-Eden-esque clearing in the middle of dense woods, they start to build their own home. They invoke plans to live off the land until the end of their days – or at least until they get their drivers licenses.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts uses a standard issue House-Building-Montage held together by the glue that is MGMT’s classic “The Youth” in one of those rare scenes where music and story seamlessly flow together, (think “Layla” in Scorsese’s GoodFellas, only a little cuter). When the dust settles – they have done it. They are men. Hear their adolescent roar.
The film weaves back and forth between the boys ascent to manhood and their parents frantic rescue attempts and questions of what they did wrong.
The separation from each other causes both the kids and the parents to look inward at themselves and reevaluate their relationships.
Despite the carnage left behind, Joe, Patrick, and Biagio have no time to worry about such matters. They are men now, surviving on their animal instincts and a few Boston Market trips. In a hilarious and well… flat out cool scene, the three prepare a tribal ceremony using sticks, a large pipe, and all the wild guttural yelps they can muster without cracking their voices. Savages, with acne. Life is good. Until they get cocky.
Joe invites his crush, (Erin Moriarty) and her friends to check out their new pad.
There are few things that can sour the magic that is childhood friendship – females being at the top of the list. One could almost feel the collective empathetic seeth from the men in the audience as Joe’s crush steps directly over him to ask Patrick to “take a walk” in the middle of the night. The forbidden fruit of their makeshift Eden has been compromised, and suddenly their paradise doesn’t seem so perfect.
With the help of the towns clumsy policemen and a bluntly symbolic snake attack, their tryst in the woods comes to an end. In a heartfelt denouement between Joe and Patrick involving a middle finger and a smirk, (the secret language of teenage boys’ emotions) they each realize that their lives really aren’t that bad.
This tender moment touches the audiences…then makes us sit upright as we realize, “So..what was the problem here?” We turn this over in our heads as the credits roll over a charming suburban neighborhood.
The characters, like the young audience the film targets, represent a generation that was raised on the currency of teenaged angst. We start to think about the hundreds of melodramatic television shows and coming of age comedies that have been hammering their morose attitudes into our heads. And we’ve started to buy it. Just like real teenagers, the protagonists are convinced their domestic suffering is up there with Darfur and Uganda. And like real teenagers, it’s hard for anybody else to sympathize with their plight.
In the end – the lovable characters, incredible performances, and razor sharp dialogue made the film worth it, even if the main “conflict” was more of an annoying pest, rather than a driving force.