The Kings of Summer: Sundance Review

Toy's House

U.S.A. (Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Screenwriter: Chris Galletta)

Three unhappy teenage boys flee to the wilderness where they build a makeshift house and live off the land as masters of their own destiny. Or at least that’s the plan. Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie.

While plot-wise it's a little slender, not to mention heavy on studied eccentricities, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' debut feature also has a generous share of rewards.

Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias play restless teens who strike out for freedom by building their own wilderness retreat.

PARK CITY – Arrestingly shot in a tranquil Ohio woodland setting, and driven by the gnawing impatience of teenage boys to become men, Toy’s House (retitled The Kings of Summer for U.S. release) represents a strong calling card for first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. While it goes overboard slapping quirk upon quirk, and adds nothing startling to the crowded canon of oddball rites-of-passage indie comedies, the film is fresh and funny enough to connect with young audiences, teens especially.

What Chris Galletta’s screenplay really has going for it is a keen eye for the absurd humor in that precise point during adolescence when kids start viewing their parents as hostile aliens. Those adults, on the other hand, remain stuck in suddenly obsolete ways of talking to their children, their blundering efforts to bridge the gap more often than not yielding embarrassment.

That divide is amusingly embodied by the young cast members, led by Nick Robinson as smart, skinny Joe Toy, and Gabriel Basso as his more brawny wrestler buddy Patrick Keenan. But the grownups are equally engaging, particularly Parks & Recreation regular Nick Offerman in a wonderful comic performance as Joe’s widowed father Frank. Galletta gives this quick-witted, perennially deadpan grouch most of the film’s best lines, but Offerman’s sublime sarcastic delivery is what makes them sing. Frank almost seems to demand a movie of his own. As Patrick’s caring folks, Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson are relentlessly chipper and benignly insane.

While the parental figures seem to come as much from a sitcom universe as any film tradition, at least the director and writer’s models are good ones. A brief appearance by a typically nutty Tony Hale is just one reminder of the thorny eccentricities of family dynamics on Arrested Development.

An opening flash of three boys banging out a tribal dance rhythm on a pipeline running through the woods hints at the back-to-nature, Lord of the Flies-type experience to come. After the latest clash with his father, Joe stumbles onto a clearing far off the beaten track on his way home from a party. Illumination strikes and he declares to Patrick that they will build a house there, making this secret spot their escape. They acquire an uninvited tag-along comrade in Biaggio (Moises Arias), an intense freak who speaks almost exclusively in cryptic non sequiturs.

Buying and pilfering materials, they build a ramshackle wood cabin with a porta-potty front door. The structure is a feather in the cap of production designer Tyler Robinson, but also a pleasing demonstration that while the boys have entered their teens, they still carry with them the imaginative construction skills of children.

It’s around this point that Vogt-Roberts starts resorting too often to overused indie-film stylistic tropes, particularly the ubiquitous slow-motion montage to soaring alt-rock track. But even if the movie ultimately proves less adventurous than its main characters, it has a charm that keeps resurfacing every time you think it’s wandering too far into cutesville.

Being the fugitive trio’s closest thing to an Alpha male, Patrick appoints himself the hunter, consigning Joe to foraging duties and leaving Biaggio to his amiable weirdness. The boys proudly declare that the wilderness has made them men, allowing them to set their own rules as well as catch and gather their own food. But the sustenance comes mainly from Joe and Biaggio’s furtive trips to a Boston Market on the edge of the woods.

Conflict surfaces when they decide the place needs a female presence, bringing sweet school classmate Kelly (Erin Moriarty) into their midst. But while Joe is clearly consumed by his crush on her, she gravitates toward Patrick, causing pain that destabilizes the boys’ friendship.

The action back with their parents tests logic. It’s implausible that despite TV news coverage of the kids’ disappearance, with Joe eventually missing for more than a month, there’s no evidence of the woods being combed. But the intended tone is just slightly left of realism, and the interaction between the parents and two local cops heading the investigation provides rich opportunities for screwy humor in a crisis. The always-delightful Mary Lynn Rajskub is the serious senior officer, with Thomas Middleditch as her clueless rookie sidekick. There’s also a lovely quiet interlude between Frank and Patrick’s father, reminding us and them that they were boys themselves not so long ago.

Creator and director of the Comedy Central series Mash Up, Vogt-Roberts has enough assurance and style to keep the pace steady, even when the film doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And he gets a nice balance of cultivated teen knowingness and awkward vulnerability from his young cast, who manage to make the hyper-articulate dialogue seem natural.

Robinson is especially good, providing the film with a tender heart, and Joe’s understated reconciliation scenes with Frank are warmly handled.

Vogt-Roberts’ biggest assist comes from cinematographer Ross Riege, who captures the awe, the mystery and the enveloping serenity of the woods in luminous images. The loving detail of his frequent closeups of flora and fauna almost suggest a playful tip of the hat to Terrence Malick, within a movie that pays affectionate homage to Stand By Me.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Erin Moriarty, Marc Evan Jackson, Thomas Middleditch, Tony Hale

Production companies: Big Beach, Low Spark Films

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Screenwriter: Chris Galletta

Producers: Tyler Davidson, Peter Saraf, John Hodges

Executive producers: Richard Rothfeld, Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Director of photography: Ross Riege

Production designer: Tyler Robinson

Music: Ryan Miller

Costume designer: Lynette Meyer

Editor: Terel Gibson

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 93 minutes.