For his feature debut director Jordan Vogt-Roberts draws inspiration from the films he loved as a kid. In one interview I read he mentioned The Goonies and Stand By Me and I was certainly reminded of both of those movies when I watched The Kings of Summer. The friendship between protagonists Joe and Patrick, in particular, is similar to the close bond that Gordie and Chris share in Stand By Me (and Nick Robinson bears more than a passing resemblance to young Will Wheaton, which makes the connection even stronger). I was reminded of other titles as well. When Joe, Patrick and their eccentric third wheel Biaggio (the scene-stealing Moises Arias) run away to the woods, build a house of their own and swear an oath to live off the land and be the kings of their kingdom it's hard not to think of Max asserting his dominion over the terrible beasts in Where the Wild Things Are. And the volatile relationship between Joe and his father is not unlike the one between Max and his mother in the Maurice Sendak classic. There are traces of Peter Pan, too, but with one big difference: Barrie's Lost Boys run away from home so they'll never have to grow up. Joe, Patrick and Biaggio are anxious to leave adolescence behind and become men, so that they will not to have to answer to anyone.
Coming of age stories are not in short supply and the basic premise of The Kings of Summer is pretty standard fare. It's the approach to the material that sets it apart. This is a well crafted movie with a boisterous, off-kilter sense of humor. The natural world of the story is beautifully photographed; there are quiet, reverent moments that approach a near Terrence Malick-like elegance. More often than not, though, the dreamy imagery is paired with raucous musical cues and hilarious montages of the protagonists behaving like the energetic, unsupervised boys that they are (they do things like slice whole watermelons in half, mid-air, with swords and machetes). And while the boys are off playing at being men their parents are at home trying to figure out where they've gone. I should mention that Joe's father is played by Nick Offerman and Patrick's mother by Megan Mullally. And while there is genuine love, concern and conflict in the movie's parent-child relationships there's a lot of over-the-top hilarity, too. Patrick's parents are clueless to the point of absurdity but the movie allows them a sliver of depth and humanity at the end that saves them from outright parody.
I really enjoyed The Kings of Summer because it constantly defied my expectations. It somehow managed to be both darker and zanier than I thought it would be. I admire the movie's ability to be over-the-top and wildly entertaining but also heartfelt and genuinely moving. I enjoyed every single minute of it. It's an impressive, assured first film for director Vogt-Roberts. I look forward to seeing where he'll go from here.