Sparkling is the word that kept surging into my head when I was watching The Kings of Summer; it is completely genuine in its appreciation of the struggles and triumphs of its characters, who, in turn, are witty and winning human beings, even when they’re revealing without hesitation the faultlines of their existence. The purity of the film’s essence is incredibly refreshing.
Written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, The Kings of Summer (titled Toy’s House when it debuted at Sundance earlier this year) revolves around three teenage boys, their parental units, and a house in the woods. At the tail end of the school year, we’re introduced to Joe (Nick Robinson), Joe’s father Frank (the wonderful Nick Offerman), Joe’s best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullaly and Marc Evan Jackson),and also Joe’s wise sister Heather (Alison Brie) and her strange boyfriend. The boys cannot relate to their parents anymore, to the point that they can’t stand to be around them.
On a trip into the woods that surround their little hometown, Joe hits upon the idea of constructing an elaborate version of the old-fashioned treehouse on a piece of well-hidden property. They are joined in their plans by Biaggio (Moises Arias), an endearingly weird kid who simply shows up around the other boys one day and doesn’t (ever) go away. The boys forage for materials, build their ramshackle house, and run away or, rather, walk away with canned goods and kitchen utensils in their backpacks, all but disappearing as far as their parents are concerned.
Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio are at an age of adolescence where they are teetering precariously between the unbridled joys of childhood and the mature responsibilities of adulthood. They happily spend their days doing not much of anything except hanging out and playing, occasionally searching and/or hunting for food. And then Joe’s heart twinges, and he thinks of Kelly (Erin Moriarty), the winsome classmate who recently detached herself from her thuggish boyfriend, and he yearns for the unimagined possibilities of romance, and maybe something more. And the temperature of the summer rises and falls with the passage of hours and days and the loss of innocence.
The film exists in a unique locale that is surrounded by reassuring natural markers — the people and the situations all have the ring of truth — yet apart from standard models of behavior and cinematic cliches so common in coming-of-age movies. It feels like it was hatched, fully-grown, from the fertile minds of its creators, Mr. Galletta, Mr. Vogt-Roberts, and the cast and crew, a lovely dream that comes to life and dances across the screen with the airy lightness of a ballerina, dancing with dizzying precision and the abandonment of youth, joyful to be alive and to feel the warmth of the sun on long summer days when there’s nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it.
The Kings of Summer opens Friday, June 7, exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.