Friday, June 7, 2013

Slight, Strange, Superficial Coming of Age Story

"It looks interesting, but I don't think it will be as good as The Way, Way Back," my movie buddy pronounced her verdict upon watching the trailer for The Kings of Summer.

At the end of the screening of The Kings of Summer at the lovely Embaradero Center Theater in San Francisco, her assessment remained unchanged: "[The movie] is okay, but I like The Way, Way Back better.

Both The Way, Way Back and The Kings of Summer premiered earlier this year at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Both are coming-of-age comedic-drama films airing this summer. And here the similarities end.

The Way, Way Back tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan who is forced to spend summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend and his daughter at his summer house. The awkward and introvert Duncan, who has trouble fitting in with this strange family unit, instead finds himself bonding with a group of oddballs running the nearby water amusement park and begins to find his place in the world while working there. Sort of like the 2009 Adventureland starring Jesse Einsenberg and Kristen. So, despite its indie roots, a very much conventional coming-of-age film.

The Kings of Summer, on the other hand, tells the less straightforward story of a couple of small-town suburban teenage boys. One summer, the two of them inexplicably decide to run away away from home and build a house in the middle of a nearby forest, where they can live like men and not be bound by the rules of their overbearing parents. At one point, Patrick, one of the two teenagers, compared the incoherent ramblings of his mother to that of Street Fighter II character Blanka, and I nearly died laughing.

Watching this movie as an adult brought moments of real nostalgia for the innocence of my adolescent childhood; as I watched these teenagers gambol around the forest with their swords hacking and slashing through the greenery, I was brought me back back to my video gaming days where I played the role of the swashbuckling katana-wielding heroes in various Japanese role-playing games like the popular Final Fantasy series.

These two teenagers, Joe and Patrick, are joined by an Italian weird kid Biaggo who decides to join for reasons unknown, although I suspect within the parameters of filmmaking his role is just simply to provide the main comic relief. His lack of a coherent and compelling backstory gives weight to this supposition.

At first, these teenagers enjoy their idyllic existence, having fun under the sun, free from all and sundry. They swim, swing their swords, and hold impromptu races on the grass fields. A hilarious failed attempt to hunt for their own food reveals that it is mostly rats and snakes which inhabit this urban forest, and so the boys improvise by foraging for their food at the nearby Boston Market. Sadly, such a carefree lifestyle cannot last forever, and when a girl comes into the picture, this predictably strains the friendship between the two best friends.

Here the movie's tone abruptly veers off into different territory. Left with no money for further visits to Boston Market, a hungry Joe kills, skins cooks and attempts to eat a rabbit. Shades of Lord of the Flies shadow this interlude, although there is a supericiality to it. Joe's desperation rings false; deep down he and in turn us, the audience, knows that he has a nice, secure safety blanket back in his father's house. His desperation is not one born of real need, a need that is seen in the movie Winter's Bone, where the protagonist Ree shows her younger siblings how to hunt and skin a squirrel because they have little, or Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games hunting squirrels that she can exchange for bread so that her family will not starve (both characters incidentally played by Jennifer Lawrence) Also around this time, Joe begins to spot the look of a man with his carefully shaved facial, which for some reason reminds me of Casey Afleck's character Robert Ford in the movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In that movie, Ford hero worships James and wants to emulate him, but it is not long before his adoration turns into disillusionment. Similarly, Joe here is in a rush to be his own man and it is not long before he becomes disillusioned with the harsh reality of trying to live without his family's support, because he is still clearly not ready for it.

Movie comparisons aside, to me The Kings of Summer is a quirky coming-of-age movie infused with many of the hallmarks of an indie comedy. It punctuated with funny unrelated skits that should derail the narrative yet oddly works and helps to gel the movie into an enjoyable and relaxed viewing on a slow summer's day.

Is The Kings of Summer better than The Way, Way Back? For me it was, because it was a less conventional coming-of-age movies than the ones I am used to watching and I laughed way more and much harder in this movie than I did while watching the latter.

My verdict, three and a half out of five stars for me.

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