The Kings of Summer -- Pictured: Nick Offerman (Screengrab)
‘THE KINGS OF SUMMER’ ★★★½
Joe Toy Nick Robinson
Patrick Gabriel Basso
Biaggio Moises Arias
Frank Nick Offerman
Mrs. Keenan Megan Mullally
Heather Alison Brie
Kelly Erin Moriarty
CBS Films presents a film directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by Chris Galletta. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated R (for language and some teen drinking). Opening Friday at AMC River East, Landmark Century and Evanston CineArts 6.
Updated: July 8, 2013 6:06AM
When Mark Twain had Huck Finn leave the kind-hearted widow hoping to “civilize” him, he tapped into the dream of all teenagers and the teenagers inside all of us to escape from all rules and restrictions and create our lives from scratch.
In the wise, touching, and often wildly funny “The Kings of Summer,” three 15-year-olds follow their own call of the wild to run away from home and build a house in the woods. Their parents may see them as boys, but they want a place where they can define what it means to be men.
Nick Robinson, who perfected a look of exquisite pain at the humiliating behavior of his father in a hilarious series of Cox cable commercials, plays Joe Toy, the ringleader. He lives with his widowed father, Frank (Nick Offerman of “Parks and Recreation” in a witty and heartfelt performance). Of course at that age, a parent does not have to do anything to be excruciatingly embarrassing. It is bad enough that Frank actually exists, but he also has the nerve to tell Joe what to do. Worse, he is dating someone, and worst of all, he expects Joe to play a board game with her. The horror!
Joe’s best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), is smoldering with his own case of adolescent fury. His parents tell him to “rope in the attitude, mister” and just because his ankle is in a cast, they want him to be careful. How dare they! “I’m happy to be where my parents are not,” he tells his friends.
Another kid named simply Biaggio (the wonderfully oddball Moises Arias) wants to join them. He does not have any special problem with his family. But he just “didn’t want to do nothing.”
So Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio build their house in the woods. They breathe the air of free men and rejoice in their liberation from all rules and conventions. They vow “to boil our own water, kill our own food, build our own shelter, be our own men.” If foraging for food in the woods means a stop by the Boston Market across the highway from the forest, well, no one can argue with how good it tastes.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta bring a fresh and sympathetic eye to the story, evoking the pleasure of what feels — for a little while — like endless possibilities. The film perfectly captures that liminal moment when teenagers live in the space between childhood and becoming an adult.
As is often the case with boys of 15, they look like they are from three different planets. Patrick is muscular and physically much more mature than the others, Biaggio could be 12, and Joe is somewhere in the peach-fuzzy middle. Biaggio’s random and inscrutable pronouncements are amusingly accepted by the other two as if they made as much sense as anything else, or as if making sense did not matter. The boys are young enough to be certain their parents are wrong about pretty much everything — and to be confident that they can do it all better.
They’re old enough to carry it off, at first. The house is like something the Lost Boys might build for Peter Pan, with a stolen door from a Port-a-Potty for the entrance and essentials like a mailbox, a slide, a basketball hoop and an air hockey table. But some things are harder than they thought. And of course the most unexpected complication is when a girl comes through the Port-a-Potty door.
Like Henry David Thoreau, another literary icon who dreamed of escaping the oppression of civilization, the boys learn that there is a time to go to the woods, and a time to come home.
Nell Minow is the film critic of the site beliefnet.com.