Bildungsroman – n. A novel concerned with a person’s formative years and development. [literally: education novel] — Collins English Dictionary
There are a lot of firsts here in The Kings of Summer. The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, here making his feature debut after directing various short films, TV shows, and Funny or Die segments. The film was written by Chris Galletta, whose IMDB page is otherwise entirely empty aside from four episodes of production work on Letterman. The lead actor is Nick Robinson, who had only acted in a few brief TV roles before this.
Even if this movie had the more reliable talents of Megan Mullally, Alison Brie, and Nick Offerman on hand, there’s no getting around the fact that the star, the writer, and the director of this picture were all unproven factors. Even better, Robinson’s co-leads would be a couple of other teenaged actors, one of whom (Gabriel Basso) made his big break as a supporting character on Super 8. The other one (Moises Arias) came of age on the set of “Hannah Montana.”
This film was a true wild card. There was no way to tell how such a bizarre mix of unknown talents and familiar pros would shake out, especially on an independent movie. In the end, Kings of Summer evened out to a film that was adequately enjoyable, but not much else.
Our stage is set in some Ohio town, where we follow the story of three high school boys. First and foremost among them is Joseph Toy (Robinson), who’s coping with the recent loss of his mother. He’s also coping with his father (Frank Toy, played by Offerman), who vents his grief out on everyone else in ways that range from passive-aggressive to outright tyrannical. The guy’s so deeply in denial that he doesn’t even realize how miserable he’s making everyone else, which of course pushes Joe away.
Next up is Joe’s best friend, Patrick (Basso). This guy is quite literally breaking out in hives because his parents are that damned annoying and lame. If you think that’s an overreaction, keep in mind that his mother is played by Megan Mullally. When this particular actress decides that she’s going to put all of her effort into making a character as stupid, annoying, and unfunny as possible, there’s really nothing left to do but take a step back and get some earplugs ready.
Finally, there’s the weird little enigma known only as “Biaggio” (Arias). It’s never made entirely clear what his deal is, though it’s implied that Biaggio is a total outcast with no friends to call his own. I’m presuming that’s the case, since Biaggio is a strange-looking fellow who speaks entirely in non sequiturs and shows an appalling lack of social graces.
Through circumstances I won’t even try to recap here, Joe and Biaggio stumble upon a clearing in the middle of the woods, and Joe decides that it’s the perfect place for a hideout. After recruiting Patrick, the three of them run away from home to build their own house entirely from scratch. Their aim is to build a new life in the forest, living off the land, dependent on and beholden to no one.
Of course, that’s only the stated goal. As the movie continues, it’s made painfully clear that Joe only ever did this for himself. That’s not to say he was actively being selfish or malicious toward anyone except his father, it’s just that Joe is so overpowered by his own emotional problems.
This was never about proving himself as a man (as Joe keeps going on about throughout the film), this was about spending some time alone and withdrawn until he can work a few things out, the way everyone does at that age. Moreover, the forest house was about taking control of his own life. He wants a chance to call the shots so that everything will go as he wants it to and he can finally live happily. So inevitably, things go wrong and he has an emotional breakdown. In the end, no matter how much Joe hates the thought of being like his father, they both have a nasty habit of bottling up their hatred as they unknowingly make everyone around them just as miserable.
Which brings me to Frank. Offerman really proves himself as an actor in this movie, turning in a performance that admirably blends drama with comedy. This character has a devastating dry wit that’s made hilarious in Offerman’s delivery. But at the same time, Offerman sells the heartbreak that this character is going through. The character’s a total dick, but we can see that he doesn’t mean to be. It’s easy to see why Joe hates the guy, but Frank isn’t so easy to hate that we can’t see where he’s coming from. There’s a particular exchange between Frank and Alison Brie’s character that I won’t spoil here, but that one moment perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about Offerman’s performance and what he brings to this character.
Yes, this seems like as good a time as any to discuss Alison Brie. She appears as Heather, Joe’s big sister. She’s put in the position where she has to try and hold the family together while Joe and Frank are at each other’s throats. It’s a very tricky position to be in, but Heather manages it with just the right amount of indulgence and tough love. Brie may not get a whole lot of screen time here, but she and her character make every moment count. In pretty much every scene she’s in, Heather either teaches Frank and/or Joe something about themselves or gets a funny moment.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Heather’s boyfriend, a dopey waste of perfectly good air named Colin (Eugene Cordero). Aside from giving Frank someone to react off of, Colin serves absolutely no purpose in this movie. He’s only one of many useless and/or underdeveloped characters in this movie, but I’ll get back to that later.
Next up, I have to talk about Kelly (Erin Moriarty). She’s a classmate that Joe has a crush on, though she seems to be keeping him in the so-called “friend zone.” Naturally, she’s the love interest of the picture, and also a point of contention between Joe and Patrick. It would have been so easy to make her a two-dimensional character, yet the movie somehow depicts Kelly as a heartbreaker without making her a bitch in the process. Though Joe’s romantic feelings may be far too simplistic and childish for his own good, the relationship between them is surprisingly nuanced and relatable. Of course, it also helps that Kelly is a surprisingly proactive supporting character and affects the plot in some big ways.
However, Kelly isn’t immune from dragging down the pacing, either. In one totally extraneous scene, we see that Kelly works on a golf course, selling refreshments to rich assholes. It has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but at least it gets a few good jokes in and teaches us something new about the character, so I can let it slide.
At this point, you may have noticed that I’ve been talking pretty much entirely about Joe. All of these characters and their storylines are the ones that directly impact that of Joe. This is because the other two main characters are woefully ill-defined by comparison.
Take Patrick, for example. The movie spends a great deal of time focusing on his friendship with Joe and how it gradually gets more strained, but Patrick is woefully underdeveloped as a character in his own right. We see, for example, that Patrick has an injured foot that’s kept in a brace. Take this out of the movie and not a thing would have changed. You’d think it might slow the group down some or contribute to some medical crisis far from the care of civilization, but nope! It’s barely even mentioned. Come to think of it, the movie doesn’t go into detail about how he breaks out in hives, either. It’s like we’re supposed to believe that his skin condition is seriously caused by his parents, which seems like a bit of a stretch in what’s otherwise a “realistic” slice-of-life movie.
Speaking of which, there’s the matter of Patrick’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Keenan (Marc Evan Jackson and Megan Mullally) are made to look like such incredible dolts that it’s frankly quite scary to think that they ever procreated in the first place. As with Joe, it’s easy to see why Patrick hates his parents so much. The difference, however, is that neither of Patrick’s parents have the pathos or the character development that make Frank worth watching. They have absolutely no reason to be so annoying, and they never learn or grow in any recognizable way over the course of the narrative. What you see with them is what you get.
First of all, this complete lack of change does all manner of disservice to Patrick. If his family didn’t change in any appreciable way at any point between the beginning and the end, then what was the point? Secondly, I feel personally ripped off by this lack of a character arc. If I’m going to suffer through a whole subplot of Megan Mullally’s voice going nonstop at its screechiest, then I demand a suitable payoff for it. Moreover, I remember Mullally’s performance in Smashed. I know that Mullally’s a better actor than this, and I know that she could’ve blended drama with comedy to give a performance on par with that of Offerman, if only the script had called on her to do so.
(Side note: Wasn’t Offerman in Smashed as well? Huh. Small world.)
Then there’s the matter of Biaggio. On the one hand, I’m grateful that he was there. Between Joe, the eternal optimist who thinks that this is a great idea, and Patrick, who tries to take it more slowly and act with rational hesitance, we needed someone like Biaggio to shake things up. It’s completely impossible to predict what he’ll do or what he’s capable of, which greatly benefits the film in terms of plot and comedy alike.
On the other hand, the movie is perfectly content to keep Biaggio as a mysterious little troll. There are so many reasons why this was the wrong move to make. For one thing, it does a great disservice to the character when Joe and Patrick each get a character arc while Biaggio keeps static through the whole running time. He’s one of the lead characters in a character drama, for God’s sake, and we never learn a single certain thing about him. We never even get a straight answer as to why he joined this enterprise in the first place, which was a catastrophic error on the movie’s part.
By a similar token, we never learn a thing about Biaggio’s family. There is seriously nothing. Even when we meet Biaggio’s father, he’s kept almost entirely offscreen. We have absolutely no idea what kind of relationship Biaggio has with his parents, or how they feel about his running away. Hell, I don’t even know if Biaggio knows. All the same, in a movie about the conflict between rebellious adolescent boys and their parents, it’s a really big fucking problem when one of the three main characters has a family life that goes completely unexplored.
In doing the research for this blog entry, I found that the movie was originally supposed to be titled “Toy’s House.” For one thing, that would certainly explain the protagonist’s peculiar surname. For another, it would explain the movie’s overwhelming emphasis on Joe. If the movie had kept that title and cut a few of Patrick’s scenes, this would have been a far better and more focused movie. But instead, it’s called “The Kings of Summer.” The title has gone from singular to plural, and so the focus has shifted away from Joe in particular, instead favoring the group as a whole. As such, the film is made to look awful when it does such a pitifully imbalanced job of developing the characters in this group. It’s not even like this is a huge group with a wide variety of characters; how hard could it be to give equal screentime and development to three teenaged boys?
As long as I’m talking about the editing, I have to say that it’s very hit-and-miss. Sometimes, the editing is diabolically clever. A particular cut-away just before the climax comes to mind, ditto for a Monopoly game at the end of the second act. Other times, the editing will stitch together shots in ways that only look jumbled, clearly trying to be too clever for its own good. I get that the cutaway shots are mostly done to get us inside the characters’ heads, but this is executed in a way that does far more harm than good. In particular, Joe gets the occasional daydreaming sequence that only serves to pad out the screentime while looking incredibly childish.
Still, my favorite totally worthless moment comes early in the third act. We’re introduced to a couple of people who meet each other at the local Fourth of July parade, briefly stumbling onto the boys’ forest hideaway as they go to make out. We never learn who these people are, and we never meet them again. There is nothing remotely funny about this sequence of events and absolutely nothing relevant comes of it. They just pop in from out of the blue, take up a minute of screen time doing not a damned thing, and then leave the movie for good. FAIL.
In spite of my problems with the editing, I must give props to the cinematography. The Ohio forest is made to look absolutely beautiful in this picture, and there are shots of wildlife that will take your breath away.
Alas, any points I give for the visuals must be taken right back for the inconsistent score. The movie often has a strange kind of electronic sound to it, which is dreadfully jarring against the rustic nature of the setting and story. Other times, the movie will feature music played by the characters themselves, either on guitar, violin, or drummed on a giant old pipe they find. I really wish that might have been the score for the entire movie.
All in all, The Kings of Summer is only worth watching for one of its three main characters. Joe’s story is poignantly delivered, with a great performance from Nick Offerman and a solid debut for Nick Robinson. Unfortunately, the extraneous crap and the lack of equal development for the other characters sets back the rest of the film.
For better or worse, I think this movie could best be described a debut picture. In terms of pacing, editing, scoring, and story focus, this movie is plagued with rookie mistakes. If the writer and director had more experience and a better idea of what they were doing, I’m sure this would be worthy of a strong recommendation. As it is, the movie is just funny and touching enough that I can only give it a faint recommendation. Even so, this one was a very near miss. Here’s hoping that Vogt-Roberts and Galleta learn from their mistakes to give us something really special next time.