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This movie gets at something deep and pure.

The Kings of Summer is the first major work from Jordan Vogt-Roberts (director) and Chris Galleta (writer) but you should try to remember those names because they have submitted a masterpiece first outing, which means they deserve attention for whatever they do next. I use that word sort of freely, I guess. I don’t think there are many instances where I’ve misapplied it. There’s a special quality to films I would call a “masterpiece”. That quality tends to be some degree of grace unfettered by glaring flaws or the one or two missteps that otherwise great films tend to have. Interestingly, I’m not one of those critics who necessarily picks out the masterpieces as my favorite movies of the year. There’s a difference, for me, in the value of something as particular to me versus its objective inherent quality. It’s useless to compare a movie I love (but is great rather than masterful) to a movie that I think is flawless, but there’s got to be a sense to which a flawless movie is comparatively “better” than a great (but flawed) film that specifically reached me or that I loved for some emotional, subjective reason. A good example of a great movie that falls short of being a masterpiece might be Warrior from 2011, but I did pick that for my top movie of the year. The Kings of the Summer is probably unlikely to be my favorite for the year but it will rank fairly high.

Not sure if that bit of explanation of my thoughts on this subject helps at all. I usually spend a bit of time on a general overview and contextualization for a movie to open a review. Sometimes I wade into way, way general territory. I guess this is just some of that shit.

Back to this film. It would probably be appropriate to call it a coming of age story, but that sort of feels reductive for some reason. I mean, it is a coming of age story and that’s probably a great way to simply tell you what kind of movie it is. It’s very light hearted, staying in the realms of idealism, friendship, and surprisingly natural comedy far more than it does the darker parts of growing up: disappointment, heartbreak, etc. You sort of expect something bad to happen, and the film is economical and contains plenty of foreshadowing, but it’s still a surprise when it does and ultimately not that bad. This film distils the magic of young male bonding in way few films do, and it does this without being nostalgic or wistful. Whimsical, yes, but utterly comfortable in its own skin.

It’s sort of the perfect teen boy friendship movie for hopeful, positive people. the-kings-of-summer

Not pictured here: William Wallace sword.

Though the friendship in The Kings of Summer is shared by all three of its principal characters, it is primarily about Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) who have been buddies since they were little kids. Joe’s whacky schemes seem to have constantly gotten the practical, utterly loyal Patrick into various hijinx. Joe’s latest one is to build a house in the forest, in a splendid little patch of ground that he discovers one night after a party. Inexplicably partnering up with the impish, bizarre Biaggio (Moises Arias, who steals the movie), Joe decides that in order to be real, independent men, all three of them need to live in this house away from their overbearing, irritating parents (and Biaggio’s mysterious, honorable dad). Joe wants to be independent, Patrick is Joe’s Partner In Crime (and is annoyed by his cloying, cheesy parents), and Biaggio is inexplicably along for the ride. Probably because he’s a somewhat marginalized, if fascinating, little individual.

Building a house in the woods is a universal boyhood dream. It manifests itself in tree forts, overnight tenting (even on your parents’ lawn), and tiny tribal forays into whatever wild is both easily reachable and outside of the supervision of adults. The building of the house is sort of easy and the film presents it as such, without bothering with the complications of logistics or skill that might derail the movie (and will probably bother nitpickers anyhow). This is because the dream, the idealism, is the point. It’s also because these kids are surprisingly competent, intelligent, and resilient. Plus, it’s not like they move a thousand miles away from civilization or anything.

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The parents aren’t monsters, just sort of everyday terrible and yet endearing.

While there’s a bit of pathos involved with Joe’s relationship to his father, Frank (Nick Offerman), it’s got the same sense of lightness that infuses the entire movie. Joe’s mom is dead and Frank is the kind of dad who never really figured out his kids. Joe had a stronger relationship with his mother and now, with his sister gone to college, he’s mostly alone with a man who simply doesn’t get him and would rather be his rival and jailer than his friend or mentor. Without drawing too much attention to it, a lot of this movie is about the audience discovering that Joe is actually quite a bit like Frank, in both good ways and bad. He’s competent and manly but also a bit of a selfish bully. Though a lot of the laughs in the movie come from Offerman’s belligerent portrayal of Frank (it’s a special treat seeing him outside of the TV environment), the film never gets too far away from the idea that Frank is kind of a jerk and could probably use a bit of self-awareness. This is also true of Joe, which is the point of the focus on their arc over that of other characters.

Patrick’s parents (played by Marc Evan Jackson and Megan Mullally) are zanier and much more up his ass. So bad he’s got hives. They police his clothes, mild changes in his tone, and pretty well every aspect of his life. Joe’s yearning for freedom and his earnest bid to get some of it for them is basically what wins Patrick over. The complication for them is that there’s a girl, Kelly (Erin Moriarty) who comes between them. Though she runs the risk of falling into the male-centric comedy archetype of devil-woman, the film makes room for Kelly to be more than a complication. It’s not especially smart of her to ignore/miss how Joe feels about her when she cleaves to Patrick, but it also rings true as the sort of thing a young girl (or boy) would simply hope would turn out okay. As she says, she never meant to come between friends and the film makes us believe that this is true, a not so subtle dodge from the problematic territory of making the character unsympathetic on her face. Besides, the movie is just as critical of Joe’s slightly chauvinistic attitude toward Kelly as it is romantic about the powerful and positive (traditionally) masculine virtues of bravery, camaraderie, loyalty, and independent self-reliance.

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The pain of this sort of thing is dealt with perfectly. It’s not melodramatic, it’s not histrionic, it’s just something that happens and while it can provide a test of character, good people ultimately use this stuff as a growing experience. That’s firmly where The Kings of Summer lands on teenage romantic angst.

Instead, the important thing is how Joe selfishly and childishly handles it, which leaves him in isolation. He’s a big baby and we see Frank’s shitty attitude all over Joe when he’s lashing out at his friends. Patrick, for his part, surprises by immediately choosing Joe over the girl. But this isn’t good enough. Something about that makes Joe’s behavior even sadder, but once he’s committed to it he can’t back down until he has time to decompress. It’s exactly like when Frodo tells Sam to fuck off just as he’s about to climb up into Mordor. Patrick telling Joe that he wants to stay with him is more heart-breaking than four thousand Kellys choosing four thousand Patrick’s over four thousand Joes. This friendship feels so simple and true that you actually have to pause and think about how strange it is that the situation presented, a cliche in itself, is often shown in fiction using more cliches. In general, The Kings of Summer feels refreshingly cliche-free.

Joe is a complicated guy. This nicely compliments the simple, puppy-like Patrick and the inexplicable Biaggio. While Biaggio’s quirkiness is informed by his ambiguous sexuality and impressive array of random proverbs and thoughts, Joe’s has an edge to it. He’s a kid who unabashedly calls the cops on his dad for fucking him over in Monopoly, and it’s not the kind of thing he’s only done once. He’s lashing out, in his somewhat gentle way, and it informs every bit of the movie. The movie knows when Joe’s antics should be funny and when they should be pathetic and sad, both for him and for others. That sense of tonal awareness is one of the reasons The Kings of Summer avoids false notes and self-indulgence.

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Alison Brie shows up as Joe’s sister, and she provides a bit of shading on Frank which is a great way to earn the reconciliatory ending.

Many people seeing this movie will be reminded of Stand By Me (though that one is a bit darker) and up until I saw The Kings of the Summer, that film had a special unique place in my memory and psyche. Now I guess it’ll have to share. I’d also point to The Wackness as a “boy coming of age” movie that gets to a similar level of sincerity, humor, and self-awareness.

Oddly, it’s in the cinematography that The Kings of Summer gets away from its brethren. There’s a patience to the way nature is shot that recalls Terence Malick (sunlight through trees, slow marches through grain fields, etc). It’s actually a really beautiful film and takes place in Ohio, which I had no sense of prior to seeing this. The reverence and romanticism of the nature scenes is one of the ways this film surprises with its graceful approach. Other ways include the easy competence the boys have with living in the woods. Though Biaggio and Joe prove to be poor hunters, there’s no break with their idealism until much later when Joe is forced to hunt alone (and ends up conquering this task, too, proving himself again to be competent and somewhat courageous).

Speaking of Biaggio, he’s a character that could quickly have grown tiresome or crutchy but there’s a perfect amount of him in the movie, somehow. It’s the kind of thing that you have to stop and notice because it comes off so effortlessly that you might forget all the times you’ve seen a movie where the weirdo railroads his or her own function. A great example would be how the foreshadowing of the copperhead snake pays off. The specter of the snake overshadows the movie just enough that there’s a sense of danger for Joe as he remains alone in the cabin while Biaggio and Patrick have returned to their lives (they don’t tell anyone where Joe is, showing the loyalty that is celebrated by the movie). For part of the movie, you’re trying to guess who is going to be bit by that snake and it turns out to be Biaggio in exactly the kind of way that fits his character, quirks and his deeper personality and motives, perfectly.

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One of the feelings that emerges most is the desire to go out somewhere and build your own sweet ass house. It’s sort of the same impulse that keeps you coming back to games like Minecraft but the origin of that has more to do with childhood romps through the woods than an appreciation for sandbox video games.

In trying to prefigure what the negative reactions to this could be, I imagine it would something along the lines of “indie quirk bullshit” but I think such a reaction would be dishonest. There’s definitely quirk galore in The Kings of Summer, but none of it self-referential, pandering to “hip”, or coasting on a patently made-up world (which only Wes Anderson should even try). The Kings of Summer feels like it’s about real people, in a real setting, doing and experiencing real shit. There’s only a few parts where the film risks venturing into “too quirky for its own good” territory. One of them, so totally fun its hard to criticize it, is when Joe imagines a Street Fighter 2-style battle with his dad. It’s not a brilliant moment, and it does go for the whimsy a bit hard, but it also recalls earlier moments in the film (playing Street Fighter with Patrick) and the baseline antagonistic relationship Joe really does have with Frank. So even something like this is too informed by the story, and the confidence with which its told, to be all that much of a risk after all.

There’s a naturalism to the emotion and conflict of The Kings of Summer that is effortlessly authentic and this may be its best, most masterful quality. The narrative is constantly focused on sweet, funny, and above all genuine characterization, interaction, and conflict. It’s like the perfect summer story for 15 year old boys (and people who well remember being 15 year old boys), and this isn’t to say it has narrow appeal. It’s sense of humor and emotional intelligence make it universally appealing, and because it doesn’t compromise subtlety or quality to get there, it’s a masterpiece.

And did I mention that it’s funny? It is seriously the funniest movie I think I’ve seen in 2013. This is the End comes terribly close, but maybe I just like this kind of humor more or something.

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Terrence Malick and Stephen King had a baby that is a teenager with a crush on Ellen Page and listens to The Arcade Fire and Flobots whilst reading Thoreau.

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