You have to wonder what a filmmaker like Wes Anderson would have done with “The Kings of Summer.” A likeable but disposable coming-of-age comedy that was one of the buzzed-about hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the indie movie follows three outcast Ohio teens as they decide to escape society and live out in the woods in a ramshackle house they built themselves. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts, “The Kings of Summer” boasts some of the deadpan melancholy one associates with Anderson’s best work, but it doesn’t have quite the same bite or insight. It’s quirky, but not in any way that’s really memorable.
Nick Robinson plays Joe, the leader of this geeky trio. Raging with hormones and uncomfortable around his newly-widowed father (Nick Offerman, slightly less ornery than on “Parks & Recreation”), Joe has decided that he needs a break, figuring that some time in the wilderness will clear his head. Joining him on this adventure is his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and a deeply odd guy named Biaggio (Moises Arias) whose short stature and quietly strange disposition make him almost more of a mascot than a companion.
Working from a script by first-timer Chris Galletta, Vogt-Roberts has set out to craft a comedy about the seemingly endless freedom of summer during your youth, spiking the jokes with a determinedly off-kilter tone that values improvisational bits and throwaway gags. (The cast also includes Alison Brie, Tony Hale and Megan Mullally.) “The Kings of Summer” is a salute to the warm-weather months, but Vogt-Roberts wants to undercut the nostalgia a bit, allowing for an emotional undercurrent to run underneath the laughs without permitting the proceedings to get too goopy.
Unfortunately, despite some distinctive camerawork that makes the boys’ adventure feel almost like a dream, “The Kings of Summer” remains frustratingly conventional. Predictably, their imagined Eden is ruined by the presence of a potential romantic interest. Erin Moriarty plays Kelly, Joe’s true love who starts to take a shine to Patrick, causing the sort of complications one would expect. But the problem comes from the utter ordinariness of these three. With the exception of the increasingly bizarre Biaggio, the movie’s central characters are mostly sweet, dull sorts: They’re all nice enough, but the filmmakers haven’t dug deeply enough to make any of them particularly compelling. It’s a soft, safe movie in which even the kids’ parents aren’t really that bad, just mildly annoying, which makes Joe and Patrick’s desire for independence not all that urgent.
There’s an argument to be made that a lackadaisical teen comedy like “The Kings of Summer” is a modest rebuke to the over-amped shenanigans of button-pushing peers like “Project X” and “21 & Over.” (And to be fair, it’s also probably a more “realistic” portrait of young love than Anderson’s finely tuned eccentricity in “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Rushmore.”) But as the film pleasantly ambles along, you may wish it had more shock value or wit. It’s an underdog tale that never really asserts itself.
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