Someone desiring a nostalgic double feature about what it’s like to be a common American boy on the cusp of adolescence could hardly do better than “Mud” and “The Kings of Summer,” both now in theaters and begging to help you spend a languid afternoon reliving your youth. “Mud,” with the outstanding young Tye Sheridan as an Arkansas kid who befriends Matthew McConaughey’s enigmatic drifter, may be the better film — it’s richer, more polished, more thematically complex — but “The Kings of Summer” deserves recognition for its light, often hilarious depiction of summertime boyhood and the impatience to become an adult.
The setting is a small, ordinary town in Ohio, where Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), a slight, average 15-year-old, lives with his dad, Frank (Nick Offerman). Mom died a while back, and Joe’s older sister, Heather (Alison Brie), is away at college. Joe and Frank get along the way 15-year-old boys and their dads usually do, which is to say not well. Frank can be gruff and controlling, which makes Joe — who’s at a sullen age anyway — respond stubbornly. He refers to his dad’s current girlfriend as “that spider-woman you found in the gutter.” Such is the discourse in the Toy home.
Joe’s best friend, Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso), has a different but equally vexing problem: his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are overbearingly attentive and loving, maxed-out versions of Typical Parents. (“We saw this great movie on the cable,” Mom says in a very Mom voice.) Yearning for freedom, Joe and Patrick hike out into the woods near their town and use debris, spare parts, and stuff lifted from construction sites to build a ramshackle house. (When it premiered at Sundance, the film was called “Toy’s House.”) They’re joined, for additional comic relief, by Biaggio (Moises Arias), an oddball kid their age whose dialogue is peppered with non sequiturs like “I met a dog the other day that taught me how to die.”
Trekking out into the wilderness to build a fort and live off the land is a common ambition for boys, and it still counts even if the wilderness is located across the highway from a Boston Market. The boys swear one another to secrecy with regard to their house’s location, though an exception is made for Kelly (Erin Moriarty), the girl from school that Joe has a crush on. As befits a whimsical coming-of-age story about teenage friends, things get complicated when a dame is introduced into the equation. Will she literally break up their happy home?
But the film has more on its mind than young romance, which is merely one flavor in the stew of adolescence. “The Kings of Summer,” the feature debut by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, is about all of the familiar crises that 15-year-olds face. Joe and Patrick are eager to be adults (as we’re reminded by the frequent references to shaving and facial hair), eager to be out from under their parents’ thumbs, eager to be rugged men who live off the fat of the land. Because we’re older and wiser than they are, we know they’ll need to compromise and accept some guidance from their parents, and probably live indoors in a real house. But because we were their age once too, we identify with their resilience and enthusiasm for this once-in-a-lifetime summer project.
A few aspects of the film strain credibility. The boys have run away from their homes, and neither their parents nor the community nor the police can find them — even though they’re just a few miles away in the woods (and not trying very hard to stay hidden, either). Biaggio is a funny character, but his weirdness feels like overwritten shtick after a while, not authentic like the other characters. Things like this stick out in a movie that’s otherwise so natural and unforced, marked by biting (but warm) humor and an honest view of life’s growing pains.
B (1 hr., 33 min.; )