July 17 2013 12:00 AM

Quirky comedy captures adolescence at its most surreal


In the magically surreal world of “The Kings of Summer,” 15-year-old Joe Toy and a couple of his buddies build a functional two-story house out of found materials, “Gilligan’s Island”-style, in the middle of a suburban Ohio patch of woods. Then they run away from home to live in it for a summer. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of every frustrated teenager, a definitive stroke of defiance that marks the dawn of a new era of independence. To hell with overprotective parents and arbitrary bedtimes! 

 “We’re men,” says Joe (newcomer Nick Robinson) to his makeshift tribe, standing proudly over a fire he just built. “Since when?” one of them asks. “Just happened.” 

The Sundance hit is equal parts social satire and coarse teen comedy, tempered with a dramatic core and sprinkled with bits of slapstick. Normally, such erratic tonal shifts would be jarring, but here it’s a thrilling study of multiple characters. By not knowing if the next scene will be “real” or take place in some kind of bizarro dream world (where teleportation and blowing up your romantic rival’s Jeep are standard procedure), you become privy to Joe’s shifting adolescent mindset of what’s possible and what’s not.  By refusing to fit neatly into any particular genre, “The Kings of Summer” manages to convey the slippery emotional and logical state that accompanies adolescence; one minute you’re living in a romcom, the next day it’s a Shakespearean tragedy. 

Director Jordan Vogt-Robert shot the film as the best commercial ever for summer vacation, where nature is queen and 15 is the age of enlightenment. Vogt-Robert plumbs comedy from the shifting reality, creating an “Our Gang”-like wall between the grownups and the kids. Cops are bumbling klutzes and parents are baby-talking cretins, but peers are either levelheaded allies or hissably evil foes. First-time screenplay writer Chris Galletta has a John Hughes-like knack for teenagerspeak, and Vogt-Robert utilizes an improvisational style with his actors that adds a comfortable looseness to the dialogue.  

Robinson is a confident, courageous actor who infuses his character with an intriguing blend of innocuous menace. You trust him with your daughter, but where in the hell did he get that broad sword? His best friend Patrick (“Super 8” standout Gabriel Basso) is his stalwart lieutenant general, who’s just wary enough of his leader’s schemes to keep the enterprise even-keeled. But sidekick Biaggio (Moises Arias) steals every scene he’s in; he’s a non sequitur-spewing spaz who seems to have only one foot in the real world and the other on a banana peel. To wit, he thinks he’s gay because his lungs fill up with fluid every time the weather changes. (“I think that’s cystic fibrosis,” replies Joe even-handedly. “You should probably have that checked out.”) He has both the intelligence and loyalty of a golden retriever, and is easily the film’s most interesting character. 

Comedy vet Nick Offerman, meanwhile, plays Frank, Joe’s cantankerous father, to perfection. He grumbles his way through awkward family game nights, interactions with his daughter’s moronic beau and dealings with the not-so-helpful law enforcement. He’s the perfect foil for Joe, but even their cartoonish acrimony has a logic behind it: Frank is grieving the loss of his wife, and he’s dealing with it with a hostile emotional shield. It gives the film an unexpected — and welcome — level of depth that proves that you can have your dick jokes and your social commentary, too.