Every summer, a small movie looks as if it's poised to be the season's sleeper hit. Put The Kings of Summer into that aspirational category, but don't bet the rent that it will fulfill any record-breaking ambitions.
That's not to say that The Kings of Summer -- the story of three teen-agers who leave home and build a ramshackle cabin in the woods -- is charmless, but rather to caution that
the movie's overall impact matches its modesty.
Besides, it must mean something that the most interesting performance in this movie about teen rebellion is given by Nick Offerman, an adult best known for his work on NBC's Parks and Recreation. Offerman's deadpan style, wry delivery and willingness to portray a less-than-admirable dad helps spike the movie's adolescent punch.
It's just that kind of mildly mordant touch that keeps Kings of Summer from falling into a sink pit of teen-movie cliches.
The movie begins in earnest when 15-year-old Joe (Nick Robinson) gets crosswise with his dad during an aggressively competitive Monopoly game. We understand why Joe and his dad channel emotion into Monopoly. They're both having a rough go after the death of Joe's mother.
Joe's embittered dad slams the boy with withering verbal assaults, delivered without inflection by Offerman who knows how to play a guy who's fed up with life and seems to expect nothing much from it.
What's an aggrieved 15-year-old to do? Joe decides to round up a buddy and head for the woods. He convinces his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) to join him. Patrick is eager to escape the clutches of his self-absorbed parents (an amusing Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson).
Another youngster, the oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias) worms his way into the group, providing what every movie about teen-agers needs: the unashamedly weird kid.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a screenplay by Chris Galletta, finds humor in the fact that the boys aren't natural woodsmen. When they hunt for food, a self-sufficiency pledge goes by the boards: It doesn't hurt that the boys' foray into the wilderness takes place within walking distance of a chicken restaurant. So much for living off the land.
The alliance between buddies is challenged when Patrick and Joe square off in the game of love. Joe has a crush on Kelly (Erin Moriarty). She likes Joe, but might be more inclined toward Patrick. When Kelly shows up, the boyhood paradise begins to crumble, something we knew would happen all along, possibly because the house the boys build looks as if it's been engineered for collapse.
The young actors give strong performances, and Vogt-Roberts makes room for a couple of scenes in which the boys get in touch with their primal selves.
It's a bit of a stretch to believe that three kids could pull off this kind of disappearing act, but unless they do, there's no movie. And maybe Vogt-Roberts means to suggest that, to some degree, the adults are allowing these kids room to fail.
Whatever its deficiencies, Kings of Summer earns points for understanding what it's like to be 15 and fed up with life at home -- but not entirely prepared to leave it.