“The Kings of Summer” is a coming-of-age story that keeps its humor as dry as the sunbaked days of its particular teen rebellion.
Consider that the primary father figure is the droll Nick Offerman of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” His laconic style sets the tone for the film in which the adults are in a constant state of parental parody rather than panic.
A vicious game of Monopoly, which may have single-handedly divided more families than any other board game in existence, sets off the escape story of the three tousled-hair kings – ably played by Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias.
Suffice it to say Monopoly brings out the worst in everyone, especially Offerman’s Frank Toy, father of 15-year-old Joe (Robinson). Even without the Park Place tension, the death of the Toy family’s wife and mother a few years back hangs over the house. Father and son are dealing with it badly, particularly since Frank matches his teenager’s resistance to household rules with a sarcastic bite.
To flee the trials at home, primarily Frank’s ill humor, Joe decides to run away and live in the nearby woods with all the bravado of Peter Pan — and none of the survival skills.
Equally up for escape is best friend Patrick (Basso), who is being smothered to death by overprotective parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson, nicely nudgy). Biaggio (Arias) is like a loose end, the weird kid who tags along and is impossible to shake.
Though much effort will be expended turning scrap wood into their dream house (the film was once called “Toy’s House”), the boys’ real task is to learn that being masters of your fate isn’t as easy as it seems, and even a bucolic forest isn’t a safe haven.
The filmmakers are a bit like their boys of summer, plowing into new terrain in promising ways but rough around the edges.
In making their feature debut, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta do a good bit of bobbing and weaving around problems. Both have comedy roots: Vogt-Roberts is the mind behind Comedy Central’s “Mash Up” and Galletta spent a long internship at “Late Show With David Letterman.” That is reflected in the film’s engaging cleverness, so despite the film’s foibles, it keeps you in the kings’ corner.
And the filmmakers do understand the language of teenage boys — an argument ended by flipping each other off followed by a smirk.
As is necessary in stories like these, there is a first love. Joe’s high school crush Kelly (Erin Moriarty) has a jock-jerk for a boyfriend. When she shows up at the kings retreat with friends and beer, life gets complicated and loyalties are tested.
All the kids are seasoned actors, which serves the movie well. Basso, best known as Laura Linney’s son on “The Big C,” is wise with his shrugs and smiles. Arias comes in with “Hannah Montana” cred and does crazy with a practiced ease.
Robinson (ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey”) is the film’s breakout, his Joe slowly ripening into adulthood.
You can see it in the way Robinson shakes off the insecurities of adolescence — shoulders straighten, opinions carry more weight, eyes miss nothing, smile widens.
The film was shot in a place called Chagrin Falls (the irony coincidental), a Cleveland suburb where community and woodlands meet.
The story is set in the modern day, but the summer in the woods seems carved out of a simpler time. There are streams to fish, lakes to swim in, trees to climb. But life on the lam is defined by the house that the boys build.
It is the film’s central metaphor as well. Technically made from found material, it has enough structural charm — there’s a loft, for heaven’s sake — that the boys would have a future in construction if they weren’t already college-bound. Nifty-looking but completely implausible.
The reaction to their running away is even more never-never land. There are no histrionics, no massive manhunts. Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Capt. Davis runs the police force, and the families, with a light hand and a few sardonic lines.
At some point, the story of the missing boys makes the local news and the film starts unraveling fast as fable and reality collide in messy ways. But for a brief moment the kings have their day in the sun. ‘The Kings of Summer’
* * * *
Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Running time: 1:33
Rated: R; language, teen drinking