Fifteen-year-old Joe (Nick Robinson) has spent a lot of time building a birdhouse as a class project, and if it's not the most accomplished construction around then he is pleased with it, which leaves him crushed when he brings it in to school for assessment only to be told by his teacher that it's the last week of term and nobody is interested in his birdhouse. In fact, the class are playing hangman now. So Joe has to return home to the house he shares with his widowed father Frank (Nick Offerman), and the sort of unhappy relationship that's enough to have him thinking about escaping his life for the summer...
Chris Galletta's script for The Kings of Summer was one of those which you sometimes hear about getting placed on a shortlist for the finest unproduced screenplays around, an accolade which does not always work out for the best, but in this case the quality of the writing truly brought out excellence in the cast director Jordan Vogt-Roberts assembled to bring it to life. Indeed, you can tell the pleasure the actors were taking in their lines even in the more serious parts which lifted what at first glance could have been a twenty-first century update of that old novel Brendon Chase, except the boys here did not don leaves when they got back to nature.
Actually, it's debatable how far the three kids in this tale did return to nature themselves, as they seem keen to recreate their ideal of modern living only out in a forest where nobody can interrupt them. It was well seen they did this in the middle of an idyllic summer, the odd rainstorm apart, because if autumn and then winter set in you cannot imagine them lasting out there for the duration, but then this was as much about what the dreams of the three boys were as opposed to the reality. Yes, it was coming of age territory once again, with the youthful imagination where everything can work out set against the reality where there are too many other factors to consider: the adult world, essentially.
Joe decides after one particularly fraught game of Monopoly (this truly gets the petty arguments board games can engender spot on) that he's had enough of his dad and he should branch out on his own, so gathers a bunch of books about living well in the open air, then persuades his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) to join him. Patrick is also having trouble at home, but that appears to be because he is at a certain age when all the things he liked about his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) when he was little now drive him up the wall as a teenager: some of the funniest moments here are the inane twitterings and habits of those two grown-ups. These teens are joined by the mysterious third party, Biaggio (Moises Arias), who walks to the beat of his own drum.
Basically, he's nuts, but in a nice way. This trio builds their own makeshift house and set up home there deep in the woods, and for a while all goes well, as if they were living out their fantasy of what a child thinks is the proper manner for real men to act, but what made this so poignant was that they didn't realise there's a lot of heartache which goes with being an adult, and in trying to jump ahead they're not ready for the emotions that emerge from those situations. The trigger for this is Kelly (Erin Moriarty), who Joe has a crush on and unfortunately his newfound independence - and celebrity, since he and his missing friends are now on the TV news - means he thinks he can win her over now she has broken up with her boyfriend. Alas, Kelly, while pally with Joe, doesn't think of him romantically and prefers Patrick so after a few weeks' paradise, or as close as they thought they could get, the veneer cracks and friendships are broken. You hope they can work themselves out eventually, but with its curious mix of the mystical and the irreverent this crept up on you to be quite moving. Music by Ryan Miller.