Brimming with all the awkwardness and life lessons that a destiny changing summertime life of a teenager can bring, Jordan Vogt-Robert’s debut feature The Kings of Summer certainly has a young adult’s capacity for grand emotions down pat and the American indie desire to overcompensate with quirk firmly in check. It helps to make the film more than just enjoyable on an empty surface level, which is great since there’s a major problem at the heart of the film involving the main characters not having a lot of depth.
Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) are best friends wanting to get away from their home lives. The motherless Joe is fed up with his wiseass, newly dating father (Nick Offerman), and Patrick’s folks (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are so overbearing and doting it drives him mad. They conspire to run away to a clearing in a nearby wooded area, build a cabin, and live out their days in seclusion living off the land with the help of a seemingly random drifter and comedic relief named Biagio (Moises Arias). Eventually their lack of survival skills and hormonal impulses towards girls start to get in the way, causing a potentially irreparable rift between the friends.
Robinson and Basso are great in the leads, effectively conveying teenage malaise and conflicted feelings towards the world around them. They’re believable as kids trying to be taken seriously as adults and getting frustrated that no one around them seems to notice. The main problem with Robert’s film (and potentially Chris Galletta’s script since the film was apparently cut down from an earlier version that ran almost three and a half hours) is that the world around Joe and Patrick is vastly more interesting than they are as people.
The film might be about the kids, but it almost unwisely belongs to the adults, with Offerman, Mullally, Jackson, and others putting the film under their arm and running away with the show handily. When the parents and authority figures are on screen trying to piece things together just what’s going on, the proceedings roar to comedic life more than when we’re spending time with the kids in the woods. It might be to help underscore just how much more grown up the protagonists are, but it’s unwise since the adults are so overpowering.
Still, the adults are admittedly great, and Robinson does a fine job of anchoring the film’s more serious final third almost entirely on his own. There just isn’t a lot here that really fits together into a complete package. It’s all good, light-hearted summertime fun, but the material hints at something more that’s never quite achieved. When you wish a comedy about runaway kids had been made about the parents instead, that should be a sign that something didn’t quite go off as planned.