Being a teenager grounded in your room in the summertime is practically torturous and makes you the king of absolutely nothing. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) lost his mother recently and is struggling to fit in both at school and at home. The kids at school tease and bully him, while his father micromanages him in an attempt to control and guide him towards a supposedly stable life. Well, Joe is having none of this any longer. He is his own man, dammit, and he will make his own way in the world and he doesn’t need anyone, least of all his dumb dad, to tell him how to do it. And so, he runs away one day and builds an makeshift house in a clearing in the woods outside of town with his two best buds, just like any real man would do. Together, they will be THE KINGS OF SUMMER.
Directed by “Funny or Die Presents” veteran, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a charming and often quite funny indie film. It is however also, a tad forced here and there, a bit too slight here and there, and ultimately just undercooked enough to have left me somewhat underwhelmed. In part, my disconnect with the film stemmed directly from my interaction with the main character. Joe is such a typical teenager that at times, it is difficult to take him seriously as an actual character. Yes, his mother has passed away, and that has clearly left a gaping hole in his life, but he externalizes all of that anger and takes it out on the world around him, mostly focusing it on his father (played by Nick Offerman with great sincerity and earnestness). Does his father deserve his disdain? Of course not. I understand that Joe has to put this anger somewhere but when he aims it at those who don’t warrant it, it isn’t as easy to take his side.
I wanted to enjoy THE KINGS OF SUMMER more than I did. Although I find the concept of a boy wanting badly to grow up, who believes he is doing so by building what is essentially an elaborate treehouse and running away to it, to be quite telling and touching, the construction of this premise is too tenuous to be taken seriously. In fact, I was never quite sure whether Vogt-Roberts wanted me to take all of this seriously or not. On the one hand, the film works as a light comedy. On the other hand though, kids running away isn’t a terribly funny topic. So when something serious like this is only occasionally treated with seriousness, the tone can be confusing and uneven. Coming of age means coming into your own and I feel THE KINGS OF SUMMER, and the team behind it, still has a little ways to go.