“I went to the woods, because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I’m not sure if it would be appropriate to use the word “cool” to describe me as a high school student. I’m not certain if teenagers have the capacity for actual coolness. I was a teacher for ten years, and I can assure you the ones labeled as the “cool kids” are usually anything but. Those are the kids who are obsessed with being trendy, and there’s nothing less cool than that. My friends and I played sports and were involved in a lot at school, but, most importantly, we were very interested in popular culture. We have subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Premiere and the like, and we read those publications cover-to-cover.
One day at lunch, our geometry teacher came up to us to brag about how he’d just purchased tickets to see Neil Diamond in concert. Like I said, I’m not sure if we were cool or not, but we knew Neil Diamond definitely wasn’t. That made for a very awkward lunch as a grown adult tried to show us kids how (not) hip he really was.
I think this is, at heart, what’s wrong with so many coming-of-age movies about teenagers. These are films made by middle-aged people who are trying desperately to seem cool to a young audience. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the 50-year-old dude who’s wearing a bejeweled Ed Hardy cap at the Beverly Center. It’s Dr. Evil doing the Macarena to impress his son. It’s just a trainwreck. It’s that Saved by the Bell aesthetic, in which nothing seems to be attached to reality.
One of the only filmmakers to ever get this right was the late John Hughes. In the ’80s, Hughes made some of the great movies of all time about teenage life. I’m not sure if kids still watch them today, but I am convinced that his movies were staples of growing up for at least two decades. When I was 16, I saw The Breakfast Club for the first time. It was a watershed moment for me. I had been a huge movie nerd since birth, but I’d never seen a film before that I felt was speaking directly to me before. It’s a film that never panders to its audience. And, most remarkably, like a lot of other teen movies, The Breakfast Club deals in archetypes yet somehow manages to make each of the kids in it very specific characters. It was rated R. The kids smoked weed. The kids dropped F bombs. It was a film that felt very real to me at the time.
Congratulations are in order for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta (a fomer Letterman staff writer) for creating a great, new coming-of-age movie. A huge hit at Sundance, The Kings of Summer is a sort of John Hughes meets Terrence Malick mash-up, and, if that cocktail sounds strange, they’ve done a marvelous job of mixing ethereal naturalism with some strange and hilarious comedy. The Kings of Summer successfully walks a very delicate tightrope with its tone, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso from Super 8) are long-time best friends. At 15, they’re also at the genuinely weird stage where they’re not boys anymore but still living at home under parental supervision trying to become men. Joe’s dad Frank (national treasure Nick Offerman) is a gruff widower while Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are smothering Stepford types. Patrick’s parents are so stress inducing that he’s literally breaking out in hives.
Joe comes up with a great idea. After finding a clearing in nearby woods, Joe proposes they build a house there and live off the land. There would be no parents and no rules. They’re joined on this quest by a bizarre kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias is a real find) who appears to have no grasp of reality or proper social functioning. It’s all very Thoreauvian, and, like the Walden author, the kids never journey too far from civilized society (most of their meals come from Boston Market). But, it does force them to look at life through adult eyes. Meanwhile, their parents must come to grips with why their boys don’t want to live with them.
As is the case with this genre, the kids are bound to learn some important life lessons and will likely grow to grudgingly come to terms with their parents. Like the novels of Nick Hornby, I loved how these things inevitably happen but never as you thought they might. The script is formulaic yet totally original simultaneously. It has some huge laughs, but its more emotional beats never come close to sliding over into mawkish sentimentality. It earns its heartfelt moments. It’s a crackerjack first screenplay. The Kings of Summer is rated R, so it shares some kinship with The Breakfast Club in it presenting a more realistic version of the American teenager.
Special praise has to go to the casting process that found the teen actors. Hell, special praise has to go to the decision to not cast actors who are ten years too old. Is there anything worse than 26 standing in for 15? It would likely be easy to just use the Disney Channel pipeline to find experienced young actors. The bad news is while those kids may be talented, the Disney show have taught them horrendous habits. I don’t want to be mean, but let’s face it, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez simply can’t act. The three lead kids here all bring a great naturalism to their roles. They have great chemistry. They feel like real kids with real history together, even the more bizarre Biaggio.
Major praise also goes to cinematographer Ross Riege. This is a low budget indie that feels much bigger and more expansive than its means, and the sections in the woods (the film was made in Ohio) are beautifully shot. Not many films aimed at teens can brag about having such a great, artistic look. This one can.
And, what about the teenagers? Is this film really for them? It’s really more of a film for adults that happens to have have teenage protagonists. But, I would say that makes it totally for them. The best films for that demographic are the ones that don’t pander to whom the filmmakers think the audience is. The Kings of Summer is great counter-programming for a time of the cinematic year dedicated to expensive junk food. I really hope kids specifically will seek this out.
The Kings of Summer opens on May 31 in New York and Los Angeles and expands in the coming weeks. It’s the kind of movie nobody seems to be willing to make any more, and that makes it very much worth seeking out.