What do you do when your dad won't get off your case, the girl you love has a boyfriend and you've survived freshman year of high school, but everyone is still treating you like a kid?
If you're Joe (Nick Robinson), a 15-year-old suffering from a case of suburban teendom, you go on an adventure that will give you a taste – but only a taste – of primitive freedom. Like Henry David Thoreau before him, Joe takes to the woods to gain some sanity. But Joe brings along some company: his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and an eccentric hanger-on, Biaggio (Moises Arias).
The teenagers indulge in the boy-to-manhood fantasies of foraging, hunting (sort of) and frolicking in the forest, lavishing in an existence away from the oppressive watch of their parents.
While the boys clear plenty of virgin brush on which to build their new home – a souped-up tree hut complete with a door from a port-o-potty – "The Kings of Summer" treads little new ground. But even if it's not a film for the ages, it is certainly one for right now: a whimsical, mischievous coming-of-age movie gone granola, in a season crowded by glossy, over-the-top action flicks and bawdy comedies.
Joe has been driven to exile by his father Frank (Nick Offerman), a single father with a caustic wit. Joe and Frank share a stubborn streak that, when added to Joe's volcanic hormones and Frank's widower gloom, make living under one roof a tense and (at times) explosive existence. Even Joe's sympathetic sister Heather (Alison Brie) can't smooth over the familial angst.
Patrick's parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), while the epitome of functional and loving, drive him up a wall in the way only a teenager's parents can. It isn't a tough sell for Joe to convince Patrick to run away and set up camp in the forest. Not much is known about Biaggio's immigrant background, except that he is a quirky outsider who tags along, desperate for friends. Joe and Patrick at least allow him third-wheel status.
Once they have retreated into the forest, the trio achieve near perfect bliss. They dance through the trees, play with swords, roam the stretches of their provincial kingdom. But Joe's mind is with a girl, a buoyant blond named Kelly (Erin Moriarty). When he invites her to join their rustic utopia, she drives a wedge into the bromance.
"The Kings of Summer" has its flaws. The parents really keep their cool, for the most part – the dads bond over fishing – while their sons disappear for weeks on end. And the boys don't go so far into the hinterlands (when Joe goes searching for some bison, he finds a highway) that they couldn't be found by a search party, even one led by two bumbling cops (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch).
Yet their escape is as much psychological as its physical, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts doesn't let such details get in the way of the story he is trying to tell (with a screenplay written by Chris Galletta), littered with clever images, one-liners and moments of joy.
Ross Reige's gorgeous cinematography bathes the boys' venture in warm light and color, which is especially lovely in the film's many montages. "The Kings of Summer" gets a little too cozy in these stretches, but has a soundtrack – a playful mix of tribal rhythms, indie jams and hip hop screeds — that makes these intermissions not just palatable but enjoyable.
Rated R, "The Kings of Summer" is for generations older than the one it depicts, laying on a thick coat of nostalgia for childhood innocence not yet lost. Like a summer haze, it's dizzyingly delightful, but it doesn't stick with you for very long.