This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "The Kings of Summer," a quirky independent film about three teenage boys who hide out for a summer at a shack in the woods, was one of the hits of this January's Sundance Film Festival. That makes sense, and not just because the film summoned up summer in the dead of a Utah winter. The light-footed, hormone-tangled comedy is just the kind of small, distinctive movie people go to film festivals hoping to see.
The film has no recognizable stars and an unknown director; it's flawed but fresh, alive with the kind of energy young filmmakers can bring to their work when they are discovering just who they are and what they can do. At times, it's sloppy, but that just adds to the charm -- at least it did for this writer.
Joe (Nick Robertson) and Patrick (St. Louis native Gabriel Basso) are high school sophomores in suburban Ohio who have been friends since they were toddlers. Their parents (including Nick Offerman of "Parks and Recreation" and Megan Mullally of "Will and Grace," both superb) are irritating, mostly in the usual ways, intruding on their sons' lives for reasons that are perfectly understandable to all but Joe and Patrick. The boys yearn to get out from under their parents' smothering wings. Joe finds an isolated clearing in the woods and convinces Patrick they should build a ramshackle cabin out of stolen and scrounged materials -- the front door comes off a Porta-Potty -- and move into it. Without informing anyone.
In real life, these two bumbling 15-year-olds probably couldn't build a cabin in the woods -- even one with a roof that leaks like a colander -- if you gave them a truckload of lumber, a case of tools and a box of instructional DVDs. And some suburban birdwatcher would have soon stumbled upon the shack and alerted the police -- Joe and Patrick's "missing-person" pictures are displayed on all the local news shows. But "The Kings of Summer" is a fantasy, and you either swallow the premise or you spit it out. I gulped it down.
The two are joined by a mysterious third party, an elfin lad named Biaggio (Moises Arias) who speaks in nonsensical zen koans and seems confused about his sexuality. I kept thinking the character was a riff on the Sal Mineo sidekick role in "Rebel Without a Cause." A touch of romance is supplied by the excellent Erin Moriarity, who briefly comes between Joe and Nick, but you know that can't last.
Director Jordan Vogt-Robert and screenwriter Chris Galletta are newcomers to the big screen, and fearless ones. At times, when they run out of ideas, they will repeat a scene or distract us with a National Geographic-style glimpse into the heart of nature, but fairly quickly the loose-limbed story about friendship and audacity resumes. Overall, "The Kings of Summer" is a funny and touching movie and one of its charms is that it's not afraid of not always making sense.
Opens Friday June 7.