So breezy that it threatens to blow apart entirely, the coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer has some sweet moments but ends up feeling wholly inconsequential. The self-consciously quirky supporting characters take away from the emotional impact of the central story, about teenage best friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who decide to run away from their overbearing parents and live in the woods outside their small Ohio town. They pick up oddball straggler Biaggio (Moises Arias) and construct their own makeshift cabin in the woods, a shack made out of salvaged parts and put together with tools stolen from Joe’s grumpy widower father (Nick Offerman).
Joe and Patrick’s friendship forms the core of the movie, and the filmmakers (director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta) effectively capture the way that teenagers can goad each other into increasingly drastic actions via dares and bluffs. Neither Joe nor Patrick would necessarily run off to live in the woods by himself (although Joe does eventually end up alone), but they’re able to get the courage to take that leap together (along with Biaggio, who sort of invites himself along).
Although Robinson and Basso have strong chemistry and a handful of affecting moments together, Vogt-Roberts and Galletta focus too much on the wacky comic relief around them, including Biaggio, a mysterious weirdo prone to making nonsensical pronouncements who never quite comes together either as a fully realized character or as an effective comedic foil. Both Joe’s father and Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson) are a little too cartoonish to be convincing as serious sources of angst for their sons.
Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, Craig Cackowski, and Mary Lynn Rajskub all make appearances, adding to the movie’s comedy pedigree, but the laughs are at odds with the attempted elegiac tone in the woodland scenes. Vogt-Roberts overdoses on soulful montages and slow motion, and he shoots practically every scene at magic hour, too often substituting stylization for characterization. As Joe and Patrick find themselves at odds over a girl (Erin Moriarty), the movie digresses into fantasy sequences that add little to the narrative. Moriarty’s Kelly never ends up being more than a plot device to bring discord into the central friendship, and her eventual choice between the two boys seems arbitrary.
Despite the thematic stumbles, Summer does generate some real laughs, and it taps into a vein of nostalgia that succeeds in its blandness. The feeling of freedom during a teenage summer, the heady rush of a first crush, the inchoate rebellion against authority figures — those feelings all come across, even if they are more generic than specific. The winner of the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Summer is an easy crowd-pleaser, but like lazy summer days, it will be forgotten almost as soon as it’s over.