The Kings of Summer, Masters of Themselves

Review of The Kings of Summer, Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Whatever happened to those coming-of-age films that mixed a naive innocence with humor and a touching story? Nostalgia? The Kings of Summer offers an antidote. Three adolescent teenagers decide to declare independence from their parents, build a house in the woods, and live off the land. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is sick of his father’s (Nick Offerman) smothering control over his life. Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso) finds his parents psychotically weird and out of touch. And Biaggio (Moises Arias) is an unpredictable, comedic class act, whose off-hand remarks and over-the-top, laugh-out-loud antics, has no revealed motive for running off and living in the woods. These three boys (or men?) sign a pact to live the rugged life of true men who are kings of their own existence, masters of their own destinies.

While Frank Toy and the Keenans are searching for them, the three kings have the time of their lives. They have no responsibility, no schedules, and most importantly, no parents to tell them what to do. But they soon find that living on their own isn’t the easiest thing. And like all coming-of-age stories about boys, there’s a girl–Kelly. Joe’s crush on Kelly is complicated by the allure of Patrick and, before you know it, a love triangle emerges.

Before the three run off, they are at a party on the beach populated by underaged drinkers. This is the baseline of their understanding of what it means to be a king. They can do whatever they want. But they, and in particular Joe Toy, will learn that freedom does not mean careless abandon to self-indulgence.

The message of The Kings of Summer is nuanced, as it should be. A simplistic hyper-individualism, which we would expect from such a celebratory film of independence, is tempered by what an independent man actually looks like. The three kings have a great time being independent, but they are actually still children. It’s all fun and games for them to be living in the forest, but they are still living on the canned goods they brought with them and the cash Joe stole from his father. In what is arguably the climax of the film, Joe is finally alone and must actually kill an animal, make a fire, and tame his fears.

The Kings of Summer has the ingredients of a Bildungsroman wherein the characters’ transformation anchors the whole storyline. Simultaneously, the film is peppered with a good display of comedy that does not solely rely on crass, cheap jokes, like so many teenage-oriented films. Most importantly, the mood of the film matches its subject material. Balanced between light-hearted and touching, the atmosphere of The Kings of Summer takes the audience into the ecology of adolescence.

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