I wanted to like “The Kings of Summer” and it’s almost a testament to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts that I didn’t since what eventually became off-putting was just how hard he tries. In the midst of a film set during the lazy days between school years for a trio of high schoolers, Vogt-Roberts doesn’t force the narrative, but he does force the style, intent on evoking the beauty of a more innocent time at the expense of the story he’s trying to tell.
There is undoubtedly some beautiful imagery and passages in the tale of Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), a pair of best friends who, frustrated by their parents for different reasons, retreat to the woods to build a house of their own. Joined by Biaggio (Moises Arias), the kind of wild card always lurking at the back of the class who no one really knows, they aim to prove themselves as men in the forest, piecing together shelter out of plywood and other construction site detritus and feasting on whatever game they come across, which usually winds up emanating from a Boston Market not far away.
As a whole, “The Kings of Summer” is not unlike the home the boys build for themselves, obviously built out of palpable passion which makes it bold and inventive in places and structurally unsound elsewhere. Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta wisely keep their focus in the forest, straying from time to time to see the toll it’s taking on the kids’ families, particularly Joe’s father Frank (Nick Offerman) who has perhaps been a little too proudly self-reliant in recent years following the death of his wife. But with all that time in the woods, there are frequent digressions, some like an impromptu dance performance (which was used in full for the film’s teaser trailer) that feel like a breath of fresh air while others such as the occasional montages where the boys will occasionally strike heroic poses for the camera that run on a little longer than their welcome and come off as manufactured nostalgia.
Such stylistic flourishes sometimes undercut what real naturalism the film is able to conjure from the chemistry between the boys as well as from a top-shelf performance from Offerman, who subverts the barely concealed contempt that’s become his trademark on “Parks & Recreation” into a sympathetic father who finds his hands are tied when it comes to dealing with his son. When Joe and Patrick’s friendship is tested by a girl (Erin Moriarty), invited down to their compound by Joe, Vogt-Roberts shows a deft hand at wordlessly depicting the moment things change. But such restraint make the infusion of idiosyncratic rap music laid on thick or the stream of familiar faces to comedy fans that show up briefly in the world away from the kids where the parents are looking for them feel jarringly inconsistent rather than amusingly at odds, though one big exception to the latter point is Kumail Nanjani, who shows up and kills in one scene as a Chinese food deliveryman forced to deal with Frank at his most ornery.
Viewed as the start of something, “The Kings of Summer” is satisfying enough with flashes of brilliance from both the teenage characters and the filmmakers to believe there’s a spectacularly bright future for all ahead. But typical of the age it depicts, it’s full of confidence and in need of just a little more maturity.
“The Kings of Summer” opens in limited release on May 31st.