Overall Rating: B+
Among the most purely enjoyable films out of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was the modern fairy tale that is The Kings of Summer. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts in his feature debut, The Kings of Summer is a gentle mix of a charming dream-come-true and harsh coming-of-age. It is a shining example of the mantra that the plot of a movie is not necessarily also what the movie is about. The plot of this movie is frankly something that any young boy could have thought up, and most of them have, but it is about something much greater. It is a commentary on the modern family dynamic, evolution from adolescence and acts as a reflection of the contemporary challenges this generation is having with “boys will be boys.” Of course, those highly academic subjects are handled well within the text, but they are second to the themes of friendship, family and the proverbial and quintessential summer.
Joe Toy, an everyman played by promising young actor Nick Robinson in a breakout role, is fed up with his single father’s overbearing manner. After being interrupted in the middle of a phone call with a girl (“Well, that’s a pleasant surprise”) and a disastrous family game of monopoly, Joe has had enough and begins planning to move to the woods. His buddy Patrick, who’s parents are every bit as perfectly annoying as you’d hoped they would be, is in as well. They are joined by a strange tag-along named Biaggio, and the three begin construction of a house in a clearing in the woods. This is, in fact, an actual house. Joe is far too ambitious to simply pitch a tent of nail together a tree house. He wants the boys to embrace their manhood, so they set out and quickly accomplish building a two story home with many of the comforts of civilized life.
The house is the centerpiece of the movie, representing the freedom of these boys who seek to rule their own lives. It is hyperbolic, as I cannot begin to imagine three young adults on a budget scrapping together such a nice facility so quickly, let alone three isolated pre-teens with no resources whatsoever, but I digress. They building the house with their own bare hands, set their own fires and at least intend on hunting for their own food.
It is actually quite impressive that they manage so well on their own, as the lone hiccup in their summer begins not with starvation or disease, but the classic challenge of two best friends fighting over a girl. The girl is Kelly, the beautiful and much more mature figure in their school. The move treats young love with a high degree of respect. Never is Kelly painted plainly as an object of lust and desire, nor are Joe and Patrick shown as naive. Joe has interest in Kelly because she is interesting and exciting to him, introducing him to new things and being the girl nice enough to invite him to parties he otherwise would have missed out on. Patrick and Kelly connect on a highly personal level, and he has feelings for her because of how truly comfortable they are with one another. Joe grows from his attempt to survive on his own, but also from heartbreak, a right of passage just as important for someone his age as much as camping out in the woods.
The film was originally titled “Toy’s House,” as a reference to Joe’s last name, but was thankfully changed to the much more effective title. The former name makes the movie about the house, romanticising the setting more than the overall flavor of the story. Calling it “The Kings of Summer” makes it about the characters, which is what really matters, and their perceived life roles as rulers in their own lives; lording over their castle in the midst of an idealized summer dream.