Oh for a teenage summer. Those long months that roll on forever, answering to no teacher, endlessly outside and bargaining new bedtimes. Remember those? Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts certainly does, and hopes you do too, recalling them with the misty-eyed nostalgia inflected in his coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer.
Set in the midst of a hazy summer holiday, his debut feature focuses on Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) – a high-school student dogged by parental rules and longing for the freedom adulthood brings. He’s not alone, best friend Patrick (The Big C’s Gabriel Baso) is similarly plagued by the incessant nagging and banal conversation a life under the parental home can bring. Breaking point is reached when Joe’s bitingly snarky dad, Frank (Nick Offerman) humiliates and grounds him (those two cardinal sins of teenage-hood) for the final time. With little persuading he enlists the help of Patrick, he too convinced an escape from the nonsensical questions from clueless parents is needed. A plan is hatched, an old-fashioned breakout. Not just any breakout though, theirs holds loftier ambitions.
Utilising their suspect DT skills, the pair set about building a house of their own, tucked away in the woods where, crucially, “nobody will find them”. A rule-free summer is on the cards with nothing to answer to other than their own whims.
Joining them is stock kook Biaggio – a bug-eyed curiosity the two are unable to shake off. Heavily indebted to Zach Galifianakis’ role in the Hangover films, his off-the-wall, zany oddball is plastered on a bit too thick and heightens the somewhat uneasy tone of the film. Is Vogt-Roberts going for laughs, or something a little deeper? There is of course nothing wrong with aiming for both but here there’s a distinct mismatch. Dreamy, Mallick inspired shots of nature sit uncomfortably side-by-side with strained, random one-liners thrown in at will and jarring with any established lightness of touch.
The coming-of-age film isn’t complete without a fight and we get one here, emerging over quarrels of the heart, with shared affection for female interest Kelly (Erin Moriarty). The ensuing tension gets twisted with the odd pacing of the film, characters changing drastically and far quicker than anything attributed to teenage hormones, with Joe suddenly resembling a Colonel Kurtz-esque wild man of the land.
True to adolescence, parents are an after-thought but the majority of sharp lines are saved for Offerman as the Parks and Recreation actor steals much of the limelight from the younger co-stars and box-ticking characters around him.
The criticism to be found lies with the pacing and tone, switching from one to another too quickly, leaving an at times somewhat confused effect, begging the question of what Vogt-Roberts was reaching for. Whatever it is, and despite moments of genuine promise, Kings of Summer falls just short.