As cops break up a high-school kegger, and a burly teenager frantically pumps a few extra shots of beer into his maw, two 14-year-old boys stumble into a forest. Intending only to evade police, what they find is far more: a moonlit clearing, as ethereal and lush as anything in FernGully. School is out for summer, the boys' Ohio town offers no excitement, and their parents are growing ever more intolerable. But here, in this clearing, exist possibility, independence and—just as in FernGully—magic.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' debut feature, The Kings of Summer, also crackles with its own off-kilter magic. The playful film follows three boys who ditch their parents, unannounced, to build a house in that enchanted clearing. It's an impressive but whimsical palace of pilfered planks, an indoor slide and a Porta-Potty front door. The boys—smart but mischievous Joe (Nick Robinson), wrestler Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and oddball philosopher Biaggio (Moises Arias)—spend their days splashing in the river, scything watermelons in half with Biaggio's machete and foraging in Boston Market dumpsters for fried chicken and potatoes. Their overbearing parents and the hapless detectives—despite living only a couple miles away—fail to find them.
The premise may be absurd, but everything else in The Kings of Summer is unapologetically genuine. Rather than relying on clichéd quirks or excessive sarcasm—though Nick Offerman, as Joe's dad, brings a healthy dose of deadpan hilarity—the film embraces big-hearted buoyancy. More than many coming-of-age narratives, the film nails both the frustration of adolescence and the unshakable wonder of teenage discovery. The boys ache to be men, but when faced with the challenges of growing up—namely a pretty girl who comes between them—they flail. Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta take their characters' concerns seriously, whether it's the agony of unrequited love or the joy of banging sticks against a pipeline in the forest. Leads Robinson and Basso bring inherent likability and warmth to their roles: Theirs is a friendship you want to root for. As Biaggio, Arias provides a stream of puzzling non sequiturs. "I met a dog the other day that taught me how to die," he squeaks. (He also produces one of the movie's few clunkers, an unfunny line about confusing homosexuality with cystic fibrosis.)
Though occasionally too sweet or thin, the film still manages to enchant. In a world where adults are blind to both reality and wonder, these teenage kings can truly rule.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: The Kings of Summer is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.