Coming-of-age yarns are a dime a dozen and it takes an awful lot to make one stand out from the crowd. Jordan Vogt-Roberts accepts the challenge with gusto in his sun-kissed feature debut, The Kings of Summer (2013), which was warmly received at Sundance. With its trio of teenage leads trekking out into the leafy, lush midwestern wilds, it punctuates the genre’s habitual themes of masculinity and maturation with idiosyncratic humour and some supremely sharp dialogue. Events kick off when smart-ass Joe (Nick Robinson) stumbles upon a hidden clearing in a forest and convinces his chums to join his mild rebellion.
Joe and his bad-tempered father, Frank (Nick Offerman) have struggled to get along since his mother’s passing – spitting sarcastic barbs at one another with aplomb. Desperate to escape, Joe enlists best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), setting off to become men and live freely in their woodland idyll. Overt oddball Biaggio (Moisés Arias) also tags along – for reasons that remain a mystery – and the three of them build an inexplicably advanced and quirky home for themselves. The testosterone runs a little high, however, when the love of Joe’s adolescence arrives and shacks up with Patrick. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here – the film plays to convention – but it does have laughs on its side.
The Kings of Summer boys will not be to all tastes, but the absurd Biaggio is fuel for many an unexpected titter, whilst the caustic exchanges between Joe and his dad prove a real highlight. The relationships between the boys and their parents are at once hackneyed and well observed and whilst the gang’s internal friction is inevitable, it avoids leading the film straight off a cliff. It also remains entirely watchable thanks to Ross Riege’s woozy cinematography that lends their languid afternoons a hazy quality.
Audiences may find The Kings of Summer unsure of itself, stuck between immature teenage comedy and nuanced tale of growing up; like the boys’ realisation that their self-sufficiency will depend on a nearby takeaway, this is perhaps the point. It’s not a runaway success, but the young leads are able and prove entertaining enough, even if you’re secretly longer for more of Offerman’s acerbic wit, and if the humour strikes a chord the laughs will keep on coming even if the plot remains generic.