(Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2013)
Take your typical American Independent movie from the '00s, if there is such a thing. You know what I mean - made by people who know and love Wes Anderson, and have some of that off-kilter wit, but also love early David Gordon Green, maybe even a bit of Terrence Malick, and some awareness of poetic realism in general - picture that kind of movie. The kind of movie that gets shown at Sundance and maybe wins an audience award, because, despite all that quirkiness, its basically a crowd-pleaser with a heart of gold. Picture it, if you can.
Now, picture that movie out on it's own, minding its business, and suddenly - Boom - it has a meet-cute with your classic American coming of age teen movie. We're talking a movie that has seen American Pie and American Graffiti, Dazed & Confused and every John Hughes joint. A movie with all those movies in its DNA. A movie in love with the conventions of the classic teen movie.
So, they meet-cute. Snappy dialogue, awkward tangents and strained silences because our '00s indie kid is so afraid of screwing this up. But he doesn't. He and Miss Classic Teen movie have an amazing night of passion, and 9 months later, a beautiful little baby enters the world. That baby - half inis, half teen classic - is Kings of Summer.
Only it's better than that. It's hilarious, for one thing, the biggest laughs supplied by Nick Offerman as the grumpy father of Joe (Nick Robinson) a 15-year old who is sick of life at home with Dad since his Mom died, and yearns to escape. He enlists the help of his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), suffocated by his parent's micro-management of his daily life, and they are joined by the bizarre Biagio (Moises Arias) as they set about constructing a house from scrap and stolen items in woods outside their town. All this will be complicated by Kelly, Joe's longterm crush, and the fact that the police, media and their parents are searching for them.
Most of the biggest laughs come from the vivid, cartoonish supporting characters here, from Offerman's deadpan aggression, to Megan Mulally as Patrick's cheesy Mom, a pair of intense smalltown cops, and, most consistently, from Arias' Biagio, an inspired loon, whether dancing on a pipe, speaking Italian to a snake, declaring himself gay because his lungs fill up with fluid or sneaking up on his two friends.
The problem is the sheer quantity of cliches the plot includes - that teen movie DNA is undeniable, and it compromises much of what is great about the film through its ordinariness.
The main plot - the friendship of Joe and Patrick, its rise and fall, is well-observed, and even a little touching in its resolution, but the beats feel slightly mechanical, plot designed to carry characters from a to b. Vogt-Roberts direction is fine, if sometimes a little sitcom-esque in its determination to forge off on offbeat comic tangents.
Balancing that is the terrific photography - with many stunning shots of the sunny woodland this looks unlike just about any other teen movie - the laugh-per-minute rate, which is surprisingly high, and the soundtrack. Any movie that starts with "The Cowboy song" by Thin Lizzy is doing something right, after all...