Shot in Chagrin Falls, The Kings of Summer premiered earlier this year at Sundance and has played small festivals in the attempt to build word-of-mouth. That's a smart move since this is the kind of indie flick that festival audiences love; the film's sweet coming-of-age storyline will benefit more from positive recommendations than from a big marketing campaign, even though the film isn't without its star power (Parks and Rec's Nick Offerman, for example, has a significant part, as does Community/Mad Men's Alison Brie). The movie made quite a splash locally here when it showed at the opening night of the Cleveland International Film Festival and it opens on Friday at the Cedar-Lee Theatre.
Though it's the first effort from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who works with a sharp script by Chris Galletta), don't hold that against it. It's well-shot and makes good use of its small-town setting to tell the story of a Joe (Nick Robinson), a teen who's a bit of a longer and can't identify with his stern father Frank (Offerman). It's immediately clear that Frank is the one with the problem. He doesn't communicate well with Joe or with his daughter Heather (Brie). (The character isn't a huge departure from the emotional-less Ron Swanson that Offerman plays on Parks and Rec).
Frustrated with his father's lack of parenting skills, Joe runs away with his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and fellow classmate Biaggio (Moises Arias), a minor oddball acquaintance who proves to be an even stranger kid than Joe originally imagined. The three fashion a hangout house in the woods and stay there, sending their parents into a panic when they don't come home. The police go looking for the boys but come up empty-handed.
Tensions mount out in the woods, however, as the boys realize that can't run away from their problems and that they must come to terms with their own emotional issues. Predictably enough, Joe and Patrick fall for the same girl (Erin Moriarity) and that becomes the basis of at least one dispute. And Biaggio's strange behavior accounts for a number of awkward situations as well.
Though Kings of Summer essentially sticks to tried-and-true coming of age motifs, it doesn't settle for sentimentality, making it the kind of indie flick that can appeal to broad audiences. The boys seem a little old to be having their Stand by Me summer and the flick seems a bit out of sync with the real problems facing teens in today's society where bullying and drug abuse are major problems, but its strong cast, humor, and sometimes timeless Wes Anderson-like charm outweigh any shortcomings, even though at least one critique has noted that the film can't quite compare to Anderson's delightfully quirky Moonrise Kingdom.