Monday, 6 January 2014

Boys and their Games; on The Kings of Summer, childhood onscreen and cinematic worth

A transgression from typical reviews for a movie contemplation...

Do you ever second guess your opinion on a film?

I suppose we all do. But, I’m not referring to the retrospective tendency to wonder what you were thinking when you gave X film a passing grade or a terrible one. Have you ever immediately seen a film, felt a certain way about it and then wondered if your feelings were true? I’m talking in circles a bit, but I experienced that a bit when I saw The Kings of Summer a few months ago. As soon as I saw it, I knew I liked it. But then, I immediately starting thinking of how trivial it might seem to some and how maybe I liked the characters so I felt I liked the film and then I got caught in this silly cycle of questioning it. I’m usually averse to others opinions influencing mine on a film I feel strongly about. Personal taste is so subjective, it’s pointless to be distrust what you immediately feel about something and it was this weird case where I had not even seen any negative, I was already uncertain.

Some of that emerges from its subject. The Kings of Summer is a boyhood coming-of-age tale of the most familiar of varieties. Joe Toy and his best friend Patrick Keenan escape their stifling parents over the summer holiday to build makeshift house in a clearing in the woods, accompanied by their eccentric classmate Biaggo (no last name). They disappear to the woods for the summer without notifying their parents who are fairly (accurately) certain that they have run away together. Joe is dealing with his single father who does not get along with, Patrick feels stifled by his unusual parents who confound him. Biaggio is...well, he's a mystery. So, the boys set off into the woods. Enjoy teenage shenanigans, until the film's climax reaches when the trio break up because of a girl. Naturally. And it all sounds very basic, and I'm discerning enough to know that the bare bones of it does sound so, and I've always been mistrustful of coming of age stories. When handled when I fall for them hard (see An Education) but I am almost always slightly sceptical of coming of age stories of this variety which seem to come with such staunch indication of directorial nostalgia.  The Kings of Summer, like many childhood tales, takes comfort in the familiar. The film itself is rendered in an especially whimsical, specific fashion from director and writer but the film itself is standard. The boys try it on their own, argue and fall out and then eventually reconcile - if somewhat reluctantly. Except, it's all rendered in a relentlessly offbeat manner.
I call the film a coming of age one, but it might be more apt to call Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts' film a fantasy. The entire semblance of the boy's adventure is fantastical. The house they build. The small town they live in where the parents are concerned, but not that much with their disappearance. Unusual Biaggo and his weirdness. Their aptitude for living on their own, it's all distinctly unreal and maybe the childish part of me has grown cynical over the years so that I had my antennae up but as much as I am aware that the entire adventure is just a beat or two of legitimate childhood life, and descends into glorious fantasy I find myself emphatically, and wholly, charmed by the machinations of the film. And, I suppose, it was being aware of where the film seemed poise to fail but still managed to charm me that made me initially doubt the sincerity of my feelings. Or, maybe it was the questioning of content. Charming as they may be how good is a familiar excursion on growing up really going to be? What is good anyhow?*

It’s the way stories about growing up hit you, though. Are you responding to feelings of pure emotion or to the filmmaking on an objective level? And what does that even mean, anyhow? At what point does emotional connection triumph technical excellence when responding to a film? That’s such a loaded question and one I usually try to pay little attention to, even though I do think The Kings of Summer is proficiently directed, and excellently edited too (comedic beats land with aplomb because of the latter). Vogt-Roberts is having fun with the camera in this, his directorial debut. Like Joe and Patrick's (and Biaggio's) adoration for the woods they find to call their own, he seems hopelessly in love with the camera and indulgent in the way he decides to focus on the weirdest things. But, indulgence is not a word which is etymologically negative, and although The Kings of Summer is that third 2013 movie to make go Yikes, snakes! it is that same indulgence that provides us with things like Megan Mullally's unpredictable unusually mother figure. And, sure, its use of magical realism marking the concept of growing old is familiar and even loopily bizarre in some moments but it is also sensitive and warm. I felt charmed. But, I wondered, was the charming way the movie pulled me in an actual effect of its goodness or just me being in that weird part of adulthood where childish ruminations seemed beguiling regardless of presentation?  And, why was I even moved to second guess my initial love for it in the first place? Was I becoming part of the problem equating importance of content with goodness of craft?*

Few things, if any, within The Kings of Summer feel legitimately familiar to me on a personal level, and yet the film itself makes me nostalgic in the strangest sense not for the specific but just the general concept of that precarious time between childhood and adulthood. To paraphrase that Britney Spears song, not a boy but not yet a man. And, if it manages to be as effective on a level that’s so purely emotional it’s completely foolhardy of me to doubt its effectiveness. Especially when its cast is so game, and the trio of boys are so sincere. I stumbled across by chance a single review for the film disparagingly comparing to the work of a filmmaker known for whimsical childhood moody films and I wondered, was this just second-rate childhood whimsy? And, then, I just tossed the question out because - who can tell anyhow? Isn't that what art is about - making us feel? And in that weird way of its familiarity The Kings of Summer made me long to be a child again but simultaneously happy to be an adult. We bring our skeletons to the movies we see, but surely some of impetus for those feelings that had to emanate from the film itself.

Hell, who even knows anymore? I really liked it. The end.


*Ultimately, I suspect my constant thinking on how I felt about The Kings of Summer, and the validity of those feelings was as much about the film’s own specific unusualness as it was about the weird, sometimes inevitable, need to decide if you like X film more than Y. Comparing artwork on a qualitative level against each other is folly, and so on and so on. But, we continue doing so. Wednesday week is my blog anniversary. It’s a relatively arbitrary date in the grand scheme of things, but I’ll use the day to complete that piece with my ponderous thoughts on the act of grading (and evaluating) films including that constantly annoying question of where importance of content translates in goodness of actual art.


Candice Frederick said...

like you mentioned, it really is how a film touches you, which should supply you with a genuine reaction to it.

Andrew K. said...

candice yes, it is. for all the crazy boyhood antics, the most surprising thing is how sincere it is with the emotional aspects. i was, indeed, touched.

Zach Murphy said...

I really enjoyed this movie.