The Kings of Summer trades in well-worn cliches – but that’s what makes it so loveable, says MacDara Conroy
Only a few months ago I was watching The Goonies and commenting with a resigned sigh that “they don’t make movies like this anymore”. You know, films aimed at teenagers but not talking down to them, with enough sharp wit and edgy humour – gosh, mild swear words and sex jokes! – to make kids feel like they’re getting one over on their parents, and a smidgen of escapist fantasy that echoes the dreams we all share when we’re that age – usually variations of shirking responsibilities while coveting independence. That sort of thing.
So it came as a surprise when, of all things, a stop-motion feature from the makers of the over-rated Coraline managed to capture the long-lost anarchic spirit of that mid-80s, 15 cert era. But ParaNorman – which also doubles as a loving tribute to those cheapo exploitation flicks whose covers mesmerised you at the local video shop back in the day – has that special kind of charm in spades. Before that, JJ Abrams’ Super 8 trod similar coming-of-age territory. And now we have The Kings of Summer, a throwback to those carefree days when he school gate closed behind you for weeks on end and the whole world was your oyster. Well, for the American teens we watched in those movies, anyway, with their cars and their keggers and their distinctly defined social classes, jocks and nerds and whatnot.
Things are more egalitarian today, it seems, as Nick Robinson’s Joe isn’t tormented by the jocks for the crappily constructed birdhouse he’s made for a class assignment. He’s even got an invite to the lakeside end-of-term party, mingling with the cream of the school with all the other misfits in their medium-sized Ohio town – including best friend Patrick (Super 8‘s Gabriel Brasso) and weirdo Biaggio (Moisés Arias). Rather, Joe’s torments are closer to home, as he butts heads with his well-meaning but impatient single dad (Parks & Recreation‘s Nick Offerman) after older sister Heather (Community‘s Alison Brie) has flown the nest. Patrick, too, is having a rough time of it, his life micromanaged by overbearing parents (Megan Mullally does a cracking turn as the mom to end all moms) to the point that he’s breaking out in hives.
When Joe discovers a deserted clearing deep in a local forest, he proposes a solution to their ills – an attempt to throw off the shackles of parental tyranny and trade their suburban hell for a Walden-esque life of woodland self-sufficiency. Sure, how hard can it be? Build a house? No problem, there’s library books that’ll teach you that. Hunting and gathering food? That’s a cinch. With Biaggio along for the ride, their ramshackle dwelling – complete with a slide, of course – gets finished in no time, and it seems like their dream might be one worth pursuing. But you know how these things go. Life alone in the woods can get awful boring. Food’s much easier to come by at the deli across the highway. And when a girl comes between best friends, dreams come apart at the seams.
A competent feature debut by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, even if it does hew close to Where The Wild Things Are with its hypnagogic moods and hipster soundtrack, The Kings of Summer trades in all those well-worn cliches and more besides. But that’s what makes it so loveable. Movies like this will never win on originality; it’s the spirit that counts. It’s in the wish-fulfilment of the ‘done it all before but what the hey’ set-up. It’s in the cutaway vignettes (one with a delightful cameo by Kumail Nanjiani as a belligerent delivery guy) as Offerman’s Frank, the real heart of the film in many respects, tries to come to terms with the same life changes upsetting his son. And it’s what’s putting that smile on your face when the credits roll and you go out squinting into the bright lights of the lobby, wishing the long hazy days of summer would last forever. It’s a nostalgia trip for this 30-something, to be sure, but some things carry across the generations.
The Kings of Summer is at the Light House Cinema in Dublin from August 23rd