Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is facing another summer putting up with his nosey single dad, Frank (Nick Offerman). One day he takes a long hike in the woods and comes across a small valley hidden from civilization. He hatches a plan with his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and a strange little guy named Biaggio (Moises Arias), to build a house on the idyllic spot and become “The Kings of Summer.”
First time feature film director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and tyro scribe Chris Galleta, with their talented cast, create a fully dimensioned coming of age film that is both comedy and drama. The boys are at the crossroads of life as they near the end of high school and enter manhood. Teenagers being teenagers, Frank really starts to bug Joe – “My house, my rules” and he will not accept anything less. The teen’s auspicious hike, with Biaggio, into the nearby “wilderness” leads to the idea of building a getaway home where he rules the roost.
Joe proposes his idea to his jock BFF Patrick who immediately is against it. That is, until his parents also begin nagging him about everything he does. Suddenly, his friend’s plan starts to sound like a good one and he, Joe and Biaggio set off to their hidden valley and begin construction on their new abode. They finish their ramshackle house and a new sense of freedom pervades as they plan to live off the land. They find this extremely difficult, though, and Joe decides that the “land” they are to live off of is a nearby Boston Market. (Blatant product placement.)
This idyllic setting is missing one thing – women. Joe has had a longtime crush on Kelly (Erin Moriarty), a pretty girl from school who has just broken up with her boyfriend. After their first date, he breaks the trio’s cardinal rule: Do not tell anyone about their summer home. Things get Othello-like when Kelly turns her attention to Patrick.
That’s the layout of the story. It is pretty straightforward but not predictable as the boys experience the various rituals of becoming a man in a series of montages. The story is economically told, without any extraneous plots or manufactured crises. The young actors in the lead roles are all effective and breathe teen-becoming-adult life into their characters. While the film belongs to the kids, Nick Offerman gives a first-class performance, in a small but important role, as a single dad trying to find a new life with a new woman. He has to juggle his needs with those of Joe and he has a hard time understanding just what his son’s needs are.
The newbie team of Vogt-Roberts and Galleta may be working on a small budget but the intelligence of the story and the quality of direction and acting make this a striking debut, not just a calling card for something bigger. “The Kings of Summer” (instead of the more descriptive original title “Toy’s House”) is an excellent alternative to the usual summer barrage of big budget actioners. I hope the tweenies that should see do see it. I give it a B+.
Joe Toy (Nick Robinson, TV's 'Melissa & Joey') has a combative relationship with his widowed dad, Frank (Nick Offerman, TV's 'Parks and Recreation'), so when he finds a verdant clearing in the forest near his home with no high school on the horizon for months, he gets his best friend Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso, Showtime's 'The Big C') and recent, clingy acquaintance Biaggio (Moises Arias, TV's 'The Middle') to help him build a makeshift house. Joe fakes a disappearance and the trio become "The Kings of Summer."
Or "Toy's House," the better, original title the movie had at Sundance. Writer Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts ('Funny or Die Presents') make an auspicious feature debut with this charmer that plays like "The Lord of the Flies" meets "Moonrise Kingdom" as sponsored by Boston Market (a running gag in the film). Galletta's film would never be mistaken for a Wes Anderson movie, but the fledgling filmmaker has his own voice.
Nick Toy is an irascible, unyielding type who likes to play Monopoly and who argues with the Chinese delivery guy about the size of the wontons in their soup and his son retaliates by calling in false alarms to the local cops (Mary Lynn Rajskub, TV's '24' and Thomas Middleditch, "The Campaign"). But the cops have a more serious matter on their hands when Joe goes missing, his backpack and phone found on an outbound bus.
Joe is, of course, fine, he and his buddies having decided to go native and live off the land. The only problem is Joe and Biaggio's first hunting and fishing expedition doesn't pay off - until they come out of the woods into the parking lot of a Boston Market. Patrick doesn't question their ability to find and roast chickens in the woods. At first, life is idyllic in the house made of scavenged building materials. A moment of euphoria is achieved when, inspired by abandoned plumbing pipes, the trio creates their own version of "Stomp," an energetic expression of freedom. But when the girl Joe's set his heart on, Kelly (Erin Moriarty, "The Watch"), comes to visit with friends and connects with Patrick instead, paradise is lost, Joe exhibiting the same behavior with his friends that has divided him and his dad.
This coming of age film charts not only Joe's maturation in having to come to grips with his first failed romance, but Nick's reexamination of his own rigidity in his son's absence. As Nick finally eats one of those oversized wontons, Joe's in the forest consuming a mouse, his first real catch. Robinson and Basso establish a realistic friendship as two very different people (Patrick's parents, played by Offerman's wife Megan Mullally ("Smashed") and Marc Evan Jackson ("The Babymakers"), underscore the difference between Toys and Keenans with their constant optimistic, banal banter). Arias adds a welcome dash of weirdness as the bizarre but loyal Biaggio. The film also stars Alison Brie (TV's 'Community,' 'Mad Men') as Joe's out-of-the-house sister and Eugene Cordero ("Furry Vengeance") as her oddball boyfriend.
"The Kings of Summer" begins with an unusual adventure, but even though it doesn't go as planned, everyone's left in better shape than when we found them. This is an engaging little film peopled with strange but empathetic characters who all find their own paths to embracing life - and each other.
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