"Why live when you can rule?" The tagline gives little away but says everything about The Kings of Summer.
I knew very little about Jordan Vogt-Roberts' feature debut other than what Mark Kermode had reported (and then revisited). I deliberately looked no further than the trailer and sought it out for myself.
As Kermode and others have stated, The Kings of Summer owes a great deal to Stand By Me, Rob Reiner's sensitive adaptation of Stephen King's beautiful, coming of age novella. In common with the latter, The Kings of Summer has a small group of boys on their own journey of discovery through love, friendship and family angst. But there is so much more to it, and that isn't to criticize Stand By Me in any way. But if Reiner's film holds a place in your heart, take the plunge.
Joe Troy (Nick Robinson) is closing in on adolescence and struggling with life under the glare of his cold, overbearing father, Frank (Nick Offerman), who himself is battling his own daemons and struggles to show affection. Joe finds a secluded clearing in the woods and persuades his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), to join him in his escape from their constrictive world, and there, joined by oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias) they build a 'house' and declare themselves masters of their own destinies.
And that's pretty much it. The Kings of Summer isn't a film of epic discoveries, great mystery and explosions; the discoveries are about themselves, the mystery is life itself and the explosions are the fireworks of their own emotions. But you know what? The Kings of Summer is real, it is natural, it's beautiful and it's a near perfect film.
Chris Galletta's debut screenplay flows easily; there are no self-conscious soliloquies but frequent silences where Vogt-Roberts allows the images to tell us everything we need to know. There is context, of course, but frequently scenes just happen. What we see are three boys escaping, running, leaping, drumming and being one with each other and their world without need for explanation but an innate understanding of each other's situations. Like Son of Rambow, we are guests in their world. It is a reminder, both joyful and painful, of all that we once enjoyed and endured and a contemplative look at what we could have achieved if only we'd had the balls to take matters into our own hands.
The central trinity is a flawless blend of characteristics to which we can all identify. It could easily be just one body inhabited by three souls who meld or clash according to the situation. Like Stand By Me, the three principals give the impression of being life-long friends rather than actors cast for our entertainment. Theirs is a relationship that echoes with those of our own childhoods (and hopefully adult life, if we're fortunate) and it works so beautifully upon the screen because it feels natural and effortless. Often critics talk of 'chemistry' in terms of romantic leads but in The Kings of Summer it is a flawless harmony, even when they are sparring with one another.
Robinson gives Nick a wistful willfulness that has us gunning for him. We want him to find his own way through this difficult childhood and achieve what we could not. There is a warm sincerity to his performance; his anger is entirely understandable and we want to be in his space in his time so that he can be our friend.
Likewise, Basso brings our own reservations and fears to the party and it's impossible not to admire him but still want to shake him to loosen him up a little.
Arias is in a different league, though. He is an absolute joy to watch and so much of the laughter is induced simply by his presence. His quirky, off-beat Biaggio is possibly the most delightful character to grace the screen this year so far. Arias blends Biaggio's idiosyncrasies masterfully, leaving us to wonder if he is there by design and fully aware or just bumbling along in his unique manner without plan or complete understanding.
The Kings of Summer will be lost on those seeking movie stars and action but it is a gently funny, beautifully honed film that is almost certain to rank in my top ten for the year. To hell with being young, I'm going out to have more adventures and build camps in the woods right now! Anyone up for joining me?
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