The Kings of Summer is about two typical teenage boys—boys with parent troubles, girl troubles, and friend troubles. But rather than work through their troubles in tried-and-true teen-movie fashion, The Kings of Summer's beleaguered protagonists grab a nerdy sidekick and take to the woods, determined to build a new life on their own terms.
Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and token weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias) think they're being men, heading to live in the woods without a word to their families about where they're going, cobbling together a crappy shack out of stolen two-by-fours and a scavenged porta-potty. But this retreat is really a last-ditch effort to keep adulthood at bay: They're building a fort, playing house, keeping adult responsibilities at arm's length for just a little bit longer.
The problem is that while the film's T-shirt-clad protagonists could've waltzed out of Stand by Me, the let's-build-a-house-with-our-hands escapism reads like the daydream of a stressed-out adult who's tired of waking up with his iPhone pressed against his cheek. It is not, in other words, a particularly plausible teenaged adventure, or a particularly compelling one.
The movie's early scenes, though, are brilliant, perfectly nailing interactions between these surly kids and their baffled, out-of-touch parents. And the adult cast of this film is so, so good: Nick Offerman plays one kid's dad, Megan Mullally an overbearing mother, Alison Brie a sympathetic older sister. When Joe sabotages his dad's board-game night, or Patrick grimly endures dinner with his gratingly peppy parents, The Kings of Summer approaches teen-movie brilliance. Unfortunately, those dynamics are basically ditched after the film's first act in favor of house-building montages. It made me wish for a more conventional coming-of-age story—one in which family friction is endured, rather than escaped.