In the thick of adolescence, wanting to escape the clutches of parental oppression is about as innately human as that post-puberty awkward phase we all strive to expunge from our memory. It’s a time when many of us began to pine over the tempting thought of dropping everything, quietly slipping out our bedroom windows and parting ways with the parents that treated us like the children we would later realize we were.

In his lively and stellar directorial debut, The Kings of Summer, Jordan Vogt-Roberts captures that youthful restlessness like lightning in a bottle. A crowd pleaser at Sundance, it’s the story of three young guys who resolve to forgo a summer with solid roofs over their heads and parents on their backs for a built-from-scraps home deep in the wilderness — where the bond of brotherhood is the only governing rule. Bursting with a rush of infectious nostalgia, The Kings of Summer is a soulful and relatable film that, like its coming-of-age predecessors The Goonies and Stand By Me, perfectly encapsulates those endless summer days when time stood still and the freedom of adulthood seemed to lie just out of reach.

Joe Toy (Nick Robinson, in his film debut) is always at odds with his stubborn father. Be it about his long “teenage boy” showers or their tense games of Monopoly, the two are constantly locked in a struggle for household balance in the wake of Joe’s mother’s death. Patrick (Gabriel Basso), Joe’s life-long best friend, is facing a different kind of home life. An only child, his parents are so giddy, intrusive and downright smothering with their love that he is literally breaking out in hives. At their wits end, the two stumble upon a clearing in the woods and decide it’s time to ditch civilization to fend for themselves and reclaim the masculinity their parents have stunted. Tagging along is an incredibly odd runt of a boy named Biaggio (Moises Arias) who, despite lurking in shadows and pulling a machete out of nowhere, provides their excursion with some wacky comic relief and good-hearted loyalty.

Sidestepping many of the pitfalls associated with coming-of-age tales (which frequently result in films straining for meaningful sentimentality and a hip vibe), Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta have crafted a joyously unique film that feels as though it has its finger pressed firmly on the pulse of adolescence. Joe and Patrick’s parental and personal issues are never played as simple angsty whining, but as representations of the very real time in a teen’s life when everything, big or small, carries enormous weight. Thanks to Galletta’s script, their arguments and actions are well-developed, and therefore, justified and rightfully consequential. Coupled with a high-spirited tone and humorous accessibility, the film never undermines its audience who was once in their teens or may still be. In fact, it’s rather inviting and organically rich with cross-generational appeal.

Vogt-Roberts’ visual journey is just as vibrant — lacing the film with stunning montages of the boys’ rambunctious tomfoolery involving cliff diving, tribal music orchestrated on drainage pipes, and brutish punching contests (most of which is shown in showy slow motion). He also attentively uses striking images of the untamed wilderness as metaphors for the boys’ summer of unencumbered adventure. With threats and surprises behind every tree and brush, the nature that surrounds them teems with the same aura of possibility and risk that fuels their adolescence.

The three Kings, themselves, turn in remarkable performances as boys desperately trying to be men. As they grow patchy peach-fuzz beards, gather their own food (mostly from a nearby Boston Market and their parents’ cupboards), squabble over girls and put their friendships to the test, the boys arise as genuine embodiments of a timeless youth that exists in those forever-young days of summer.

Juxtaposing their inhabitation-free adventures is the relationships they hold with their families — played mostly by notable television actors. Taking on the role of Joe’s steely widowed father is Nick Offerman, best known as Parks & Recreation’s equally gruff Ron Swanson. Offerman has the kind of permanent grimace that makes every look and heavy breath feel like a judgment on your character, and Joe feels the weight of that. While it may not seem like it (with him chastising delivery boys and police officers alike), he is well-intentioned and trying to be a good father. But without his wife by his side, he is just as lost in parenthood as Joe is in adolescence. Acting as his polar opposites are Patrick’s parents, played by Megan Mullally (Offerman’s real-life wife) and Marc Evan Jackson. Their overzealous parenting and wide-eyed optimism is hilarious in its own right, mustering that kind of thankful “Better Patrick than me” laugh — especially when placed beside Offerman’s no-nonsense grumbling. Community’s Alison Brie also pops up as Joe’s out-of-the-house sister, who acts as a buffer between her father and everyone else. They are all seasoned actors more than capable of stepping back and letting their young costars shine. And do they ever.

In one of the few poignant father/son conversations in the film, Joe proudly tells his father that he believes he is finally a man, to which his father replies, “You’re getting there. But there is no need to rush.” It appears Vogt-Roberts took his own film’s advice. Never rushing his characters and story, he lets them careen at a plausible speed down their own paths to self-discovery. For Vogt-Roberts and Galletta, adolescence is seen as something that should be celebrated, explored and cherished for as long as possible because you’re going to miss it when it’s gone. As Kings, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio may be running from the tight grip of their parents, but it’s their parents who are making sure they don’t leave their childhoods behind. With that message intact, The Kings of Summer is the best movie of the summer and a stirring antidote for the slew of other blow-em-up, drive-em-down popcorn fare. It’s gorgeously shot, expertly acted and profoundly heartfelt to anyone who had a “childhood on the planet Earth.”

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

“The Kings of Summer” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013. It is currently playing in select cities across the U.S.

Trailer Courtesy of CBS Films.

Featured image: “The Kings of Summer,” a film by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Photo Courtesy of: CBS Films. ©2013 Toy’s House Productions LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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