When the going gets tough, go to the forest.
Blame Thoreau, who has inspired individuals across the political spectrum to drop everything and seek solace in the wilderness, for this very American line of thinking. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer taps into this fetishization of nature without feeling like a superficial retelling of Walden, a balance it achieves through juggling a pure coming-of-age story with the humor of a more pedestrian comedy and an ambitious, but uneven visual complexity.
Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) isn’t trying to escape to nature so much as he’s trying to escape from his bitingly sarcastic father, Frank (Nick Offerman), who is trying to raise Joe as a single parent. They fight over the minutia that always seems important in high school, like being allowed to go to a party instead of staying at home to play Monopoly with dad’s girlfriend. When Joe stumbles upon a clearing in the woods after the lake party he was supposed to be missing, he decides to build a house and live off the land. Joe’s friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), fed up with – and breaking out in hives because of – his overbearing parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), joins Joe, as does Biaggio (Moises Arias), an oddball who latches on to Joe at the party and, for some reason, becomes a de facto member of the crew.
The three boys, amazingly, build a house out of odds and ends and successfully retreat into the woods for a large portion of the summer. They draft their own code of conduct, championing friendship, freedom, and living in the moment, and spend a majority of their time “roughing it”, which largely translates into breaking things, swimming, and fighting. While Patrick forages for berries, Joe and Biaggio “hunt” for the Boston Market rotisserie dinner they buy from across the highway after giving up on actual hunting when they come face-to-face with a possum. They retreat, but not on Thoreauvian terms.
The tension between Joe and Frank is the true focus of the film, and the development and self-discovery that follow Joe’s escape give the film emotional clarity, a quality often missing in teen comedies. But The Kings of Summer isn’t just a teen comedy. Sure, you can find parallels between Kings and Superbad, another comedy about three male friends trying to navigate high school. But the difference in narrative and visual ambition separates Kings from the norm. While McLovin’ may find his extreme parallel in the machete-wielding Biaggio, Kings is centered on a significantly more compelling dynamic than the majority of teen comedies, Superbad included: independence and personal development versus sex. The exploration of this theme transcends the digressive, but comedic, conversations that constitute a sizable portion of the humor in the film.
Vogt-Roberts’s direction also attempts to separate the film from the rest of the pack, and while his use of slow motion can become frustrating at times, his risks often pay off. Highbrow Malickian visuals intermingle with fairly lowbrow comedy (Biaggio not understanding the difference between homosexuality and cystic fibrosis, for example), creating a cinematic language that engages with nature in ways that heighten the narrative’s maturity and Joe’s introspection.
While more than a few elements of the film are flamboyantly contrived (the boys’ ability to build a house in the woods when Joe couldn’t even make a birdhouse, the fact that no one is able to find them), they never distract enough to dismantle the film’s emotional plausibility. Joe may run to the forest for freedom, but he, critically, doesn’t go at it alone, a reality that subverts any tangible connection between the transcendentalists and Kings. Instead, it is about the relationships that help us all navigate and overcome a fairly selfish phase of life, and it knows how to manage its own limitations without becoming overly serious or too ridiculous. The Kings of Summer is easily one of the funniest films of the year, and the fact that it manages to do so with a clear and compelling narrative distinguishes it from almost every other teen movie.