Life in the Woods, by Josh Long
The “quirky comedy” has become a mainstay of the festival run, and especially so at Sundance. The Kings of Summer is the newest runaway comedy to emerge from Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Unfortunately, the phrase “quirky comedy” has earned a negative connotation, reminding us of movies trying oh-so-hard to court the hipster crowd. But don’t let that throw you – this film is never quirky for quirky’s sake, and never feels like it’s straining for a contrived tone. It’s genuinely funny, with an honestly heartwarming story.
High schoolers Joe and Patrick (Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso, respectively) are sick of living with their parents. Joe’s cantankerous father (Nick Offerman) has been harsh ever since his wife’s death, and Patrick’s overprotective, geeky parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are suffocating him. At the end of the school year, they get the idea to run away from home, build their own house in the woods, and live independently. Along with them in this endeavor is the weird, enigmatic Biaggio (Moises Arias), who is the definitive wild card of the group, and has many of the movie’s best laugh lines. While the three are able to live idyllically for a while, all good things must come to an end, and their interpersonal conflicts explode about the same time Joe’s dad is able to track them down. Ultimately, they learn in many ways how they all, friends and family alike, depend on each other.
The film is directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, mostly known for short form comedy, and written by newcomer Chris Galletta. The most obvious success of the film is that it’s consistently funny. Even serious moments are punctuated by humor; humor genuinely earned, rather than shoe-horned in to release tension. All of the performers “get” the comedy, and know how to deliver it, which is especially an accomplishment with younger actors. We spend most of the film with Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio, and they are always believable, always characters with whom we can identify. Then again, I speak as someone who spent most of his boyhood years playing in the woods (and building a pretty epic tree fort, if I do say so myself), so there is the possibility that the film won’t resonate as strongly with women. While there are definitely well-defined female characters, it’s a very male-centric movie.
The themes are relatively basic, but flow naturally from the story, and we never feel as if it’s missing substance. The reconciliation in the film’s conclusion is heartwarming, though a little simplistic. There isn’t much apologizing, or talking through what they’ve learned, but perhaps that’s just consistent to the characters. High school guys don’t have deep conversations about their conflicts, unless they’re on 90210 or Glee.
While he’s definitely the crowd-pleaser of the film, I have to take some issue with the character of Biaggio. He’s very funny, but something about him doesn’t fit into the story. He meets Joe and Patrick at a party (it’s unclear whether they’ve met before), he’s following Joe when Joe stumbles across the site for their house, and then he’s just with them for the rest of the movie. He’s a very silly, unpredictable character, but he never really has a chance to be himself. He seems like he’s always putting on a show. It’s ok to have an oddball character who never gets any character development, but it works much better with peripheral characters. Biaggio is in so much of the movie, that we eventually start to ask, “why is he hanging out with these guys? Where did he come from? Who is he, what’s his deal?” And we never get the answers.
Some could also say that the film suffers from an inability to connect scene to scene, leaving the director to construct music montages to fill in the gaps. There’s a lot of these sequences, almost mini-music videos used to connect the narrative dots. This is something that I’ve always hated about the work of Sean Penn (as a director). He has a tendency to fill space with lavish, wildly inconsistent montages, set to music. In The Kings of Summer, however, Vogt-Roberts seems to create these sequences more intentionally, and they are tonally consistent with the rest of the film (with the possible exception of slow-motion sequences, which barely push into the realm of “overdone”). While Penn’s transitions distract us from the rest of the film, Vogt-Roberts’ maintain an aesthetic integrity.
All flaws considered, The Kings of Summer is a very funny, very enjoyable film. It earns its laughs, never strains to be unique, and is more imaginative than simply quirky. A solid 7 or 8 out of 10, and a great discovery from the Sundance scene.