By Niall McArdle
Now that winter is upon us and the days are getting shorter, it’s perhaps time to recollect the long hot summer days gone by. Two coming of age films this year focussed on that wonderfully liberating sense that teenagers have when they can get out from under their parents. Both are about boys looking for and finding surrogate families.
The Kings of Summer is a real find, an inspired gem of a film that plays like a looser, slightly rumpled and less calculated Stand by Me (with older protagonists). In a small Ohio town fifteen year-old Joe (Nick Robinson) is facing a long, dull summer with his widowed and stern father (Nick Offerman), who has a line in sarcastic put-downs and embarrassing his son: when a girl calls, Dad says “a girl? Jesus, that’s a pleasant surprise.” Not even his cool older sister Heather (Alison Brie) can or will rescue him. With little to do except act out, he prank-calls the cops, leading to a hilarious encounter, and early proof that Dad might not such a stick in the mud after all.
Meanwhile, Joe’s lifelong friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is struggling not to kill his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). They’re driving him nuts and bringing him out in hives. Their folksy Middle American parenting would drive anyone crazy, especially an adolescent. Sample: “We watched a very good movie on the cable last night. Heimlich. He’s a superhero, but he doesn’t wear a cape, with that guy, what’s his name, you know, the Prince, the New Prince: Will Prince. Heimlich.”
Joe and Patrick decide the only thing to do is to run away and build a house in the woods, and they are joined in this adventure by Biaggio (Moises Arias). Biaggio has to be one of the great comic creations in recent cinema. Shorter than the other two by at least a foot and a half, he wears turtlenecks in the summer heat and a turtle-face, and has cornered the market in eccentric non-sequitirs and harmless, oddball behaviour.
He thinks he might be gay because “my lungs fill up with fluid every time the seasons change.” Worried there might be a bear in the woods, he thinks that it would be easier to subdue it if it was dislillusioned (“a bear who doesn’t believe in anything would be easier to bring down.”) He also composes a ransom note to explain the threesome’s disappearance: the note uses the fake names Jamal Colorado, D’Sean Utah, Anfernee Texas (“I decided on the format of Denzel Washington model: a black first name, followed by a state.”) The other kids have smartphones; he carries a beeper.
The three set up a home and family of sorts, and in the beginning live out a blissful pastoral existence (or almost pastoral: they live off scraps from the local Boston Market). Their house is not a treehouse, nor is it a fort. They’re at pains to point out that they are too old for that. Things go along swimmingly for the boys until Kelly (Erin Moriarty) comes between two of them.
Meanwhile, back in town their parents worry (although not enough to stop going fishing). At the police station Joe’s dad is doubtful they’ve been kidnapped (“You’re right, it’s a classic kidnapping: they took our children and the canned goods and pasta.”), while Patrick’s mother thinks the police are pushing “a pig-Irish agenda” (she also unknowingly quotes The Commitments).
One of the strengths of the film is that Joe and Patrick accept Biaggio as a friend almost without question. The see him for who he is (another oddball like themselves), and one of the questions that the film leaves unanswered is why Biaggio is even there. We don’t see his parents at all (except for one very brief, multilingual moment between him and his father). While the police are searching for the other two and their disappearance makes the local news, no mention is made of Biaggio. Do his parents not care? Is his home life too horrific to contemplate? Or is it the opposite?
Much of the film feels improvised: the jokes seem fresh rather than having been put through a mill, and nothing is forced here. Much of the dialogue is memorably quotable. The dramatic scenes are nicely underplayed and the actors are all at the top of their game. Offerman manages the difficult task of being both a concerned and depressed father who is also capable of withering put-downs. The three young leads are all exceptional, and they look and behave like real teenagers, not Hollywood child-actors playing the part. If at times they seem a little quick-witted for their own good, perhaps that’s only because all adolescents think they invented sarcasm.
Thoreau went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately. These three do the same and accidentally find their way home, and stumble into manhood along the way. If Ferris Bueller’s friend Cameron and Napoleon Dynamite teamed up to write Walden, it would be this movie.
Verdict: four Monopoly games out of five.
The opening scene of The Way, Way Back establishes that Steve Carell’s character, Trent, is an overbearing, controlling asshole (though he would never think of himself that way). He asks his fourteen year-old stepson Duncan (Liam James) how he sees himself on a scale of one to ten. When Duncan reluctantly mumbles “a six”, Trent’s response is “I think you’re a three.” Trent does this because he thinks it will help shy, awkward Duncan come out of his shell. It is significant that Trent has waited for Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) to fall asleep before he asks the question.
Trent isn’t actually Duncan’s stepfather, but he has hopes to be (“one day we could become a family”), and he hopes that a summer at Trent’s beach-house will bond them. Summer at the beach also includes the neighbours, over-friendly lush Betty (Alison Janney) and her daughter Susanna (Annasophia Robb), genial potheads Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet). The adults drink too much, misbehave and generally embarrass the hell out of their children. With grownups like this, is it any wonder Duncan seeks out other places to go?
Luckily, there is a water park, and luckier still, it’s managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell), who becomes the father-figure that Duncan craves. There are rules at home, but there seem to be few at the water park, which is probably as it should be. Safety is fine and everything, but it’s supposed to be fun, right? At least that’s what Owen would say, as he and his cronies have a fairly relaxed view of just about everything. Most of them anyway: Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) is about the only responsible person there.
Owen takes Duncan under his wing, gives him a job, and teaches him the value of loosening up and going his own way. Rockwell fully inhabits the role of a shabby, down at heel, fast-talking carny with a heart. You can see why the kids adore him. In a different kind of film, he’d be a pimp or a drug-dealer. The character could come perilously close to being a tragic figure, but the script and Rockwell rein it in, and there is thankfully no tearjerker scene to mar the proceedings.
The film was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who are both actors (and who have roles in the film), and so the cast is in good hands. The entire ensemble is relaxed and near-perfect. Rockwell gets the lion’s share of great lines in the film and makes the most of them. Allison Janney is wildly and hysterically inappropriate; she may be even more obnoxious than she was in Away We Go. As Duncan, Liam James plays an awkward, confused adolescent without ever veering into broad, nerdy comedy. The last time I can remember seeing a great performance from a young actor in a role like this was when I saw Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous (actually, come to think of it, the films have a lot in common).
Verdict: Four rickety water slides out of five