What if Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden not to get away from civilization but to get away from his parents? That’s the conceit, more or less, behind “The Kings of Summer,” a stylish and very funny teenage coming-of-age story graced with surreal fringes and a mysteriously hushed core. The feature debut of screenwriter Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the movie’s ultimately less than the sum of its parts, but those parts are so breezily written, staged, and played that you’re grateful to tag along.
The filmmakers are lucky, too, to have Nick Robinson playing their lead character, Joe Toy, a disaffected Ohio 15-year-old who drops off the suburban grid and, with two friends, builds his own house in the woods. Another relative newcomer, Robinson is average-looking, almost generic, but he gives his character a wit and a stubbornness that’s immensely appealing.
Joe gets both from his father, Frank (Nick Offerman), which is why the two currently hate each other. A recent widower, Frank takes out his grief in brutally measured bursts of sarcasm; fans of TV’s “Parks and Recreation” know that Offerman is a past master of deadpan evisceration. With Joe’s older sister (Alison Brie, who’s everywhere these days) living on her own, the power struggle between father and son gets expressed in Monopoly games that go south fast. After a while, Joe just says the hell with it.
Having discovered an isolated glade in the local forest — a spooky nighttime scene, buzzing with summer crickets and jungle greenery — Joe buys and “borrows” the necessary supplies and erects a ramshackle homestead, where he plans to live off the land and become the man his father won’t let him be. His accomplices are best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), jockier and more nervous about the plan, and Biaggio (Moises Arias), a runty oddball who starts hanging around and won’t leave. He’s the movie’s least realistic figure — think Napoleon Dynamite crossed with Andy Kaufman’s old character from “Taxi” — but he’s also its funniest, and Arias has a moonbeam sweetness that wins you over.
“The Kings of Summer” — it was called “Toy’s House” when it played Sundance; neither title does the movie justice — has a number of qualities that separate it from the indie-teen-comedy pack. The banter is smart and often explosively funny, expertly served by the cast. (Megan Mulally and Marc Evan Jackson are priceless as Patrick’s parents, so blandly chipper they make their son literally break out in hives.) As a director, Vogt-Roberts finds an easy niche between naturalism and style. The storytelling rarely feels forced and the film’s sound design and cinematography play off each other in interesting, even beautiful, ways.
And hanging in the back of “The Kings of Summer” are ideas that are both ripely comical and unexpectedly moving. That the old American urge to return to Eden — Thoreau’s dream, and Huck Finn’s — can still be acted upon, even if the “wilderness” to which Joe flees is third-growth woodland just off the highway and “hunting and gathering” involves furtive hikes to Boston Market. That self-sufficiency means more than growing a scrubby mustache and telling Dad to sod off; it means looking for your own empty spaces, even in suburban Ohio, until you find them. And that you can find them, if you look long enough.
None of this is articulated, which is actually kind of nice. There’s a girl, though — there has to be — and while she’s played with relaxed generosity by Erin Moriarty, the last third of “The Kings of Summer” turns into a formulaic romantic triangle, with Patrick the new flame and Joe the jealous onlooker. Vogt-Roberts has directed a number of shorts (including one darkly provocative half-hour called “Successful Alcoholics”), and he’s clearly not at ease with longer formats yet. But he has a sensibility — ironic, poetic, precise — that deserves to come into its own. He knows when to hold off, too. “The Kings of Summer” is a small comedy that touches on much bigger things and then has the good sense to back away.