Kings of Summer is a fantastic film and coming of age story; a bildungsroman if you will. (Yeah for finally using unnecessary terminology learned from graduate school. It was useful…) It follows the traditions of other great films like Stand By Me, 16 Candles, Breakfast Club, and pretty much every other movie heavily involving teenagers that aren’t killed by psychopaths, monsters, and demons. Basically, these are all narratives of youths growing up and discovering something about themselves and/or the world around them. While this may seem like the least possible stories to tell, their commonality of experience of characters and audience is what makes them classic films. I can say without hesitation that this has been one of my favorite films of the past year and if you get a chance to, watch it. Now on to the lessons and as always SPOILERS ahead.
The film follows a rather standard story line. Joe, the intrepid leader, is at odds with his father, played by the indomitable Nick Offerman, and his life. He is a teenager looking for his place in the world and feeling trapped by his circumstances. Fed up with the restrictions and limitations placed on him, Joe decides to leave the comfort of the culdesac along with his friend Patrick, who has long suffered under his own “helicopter” parents, and latcher-on Biaggio.
Together these three move out into a special place in the woods and build their own home. The fact that they have to steal their supplies and food is of no concern to them as they are now independent and out of the tyrannical rule of their homes. They also stop at their local library to pick up books on how to actually survive in the wilderness since they have no idea how to do so being city boys and wifi to look stuff up is not an option. So with supplies in hand, shelter built, they begin to live their lives and enjoy the summer in earnest, all according to their own code and rules.
This works for the trio until the past catches up with them. One of the other major reasons for Joe wanting to depart is to have a space to meet with Kelly, the girl he is infatuated with. It’s the classic tale of first love, or more accurately first crush, with a twist. Joe wants nothing more than to be with Kelly, but Kelly is far more interested in Patrick, a feeling he reciprocates. Joe learns of this one night when Kelly stays over in their summer home. He is understandably crushed by this realization which brings us to the first lesson: You don’t always get the girl and you have to make your peace with that.
In this case, the girl actually happens to be a girl, but really it can be anything. It is the first lesson we all have to learn about the world and growing up. We are owed nothing and for all the hard work, desire, and effort we put into something, we still might end up with nothing to show for it. The sooner we understand this, the better off we will be in the long run. It is an unpleasant but necessary lesson. Joe learns it when Kelly chooses someone else even after he took the initiative and made this whole other life for himself and his friends. He is understandably upset, but that is not the problem. After all, being upset and hurts would be a natural reaction. No, his problem occurred when he retaliated and became an ass to his friend and the girl. First rule of being a decent guy, when a girl, or guy, tells you no, don’t be a dick about it.
After this event, a rift occurs among the friends with Patrick and Biaggio leaving the sacred homestead to Joe for himself. Utterly alone, Joe is forced to actually become self reliant. The books full of survival skills like hunting, gathering, and cooking are of legitimate use now. We see Joe struggle to keep his shelter sustainable and see the eventual fruits of his labors in the form of a single, fully prepared meal of rabbit. However, we also see the change and pain he goes through in obtaining and preparing that meal. This is the second lesson of the film: We only truly grow and become who we are apart from others. Of course, society has much to teach us and we can learn an immense amount from peers, teachers, and others. Even so, the only way we truly know if those lessons took is to apply them outside of the comfort of having our teachers there to correct us.
Joe, ultimately, returns to his home, friends, and family in order to save Biaggio who fell to a poisonous snake bite. Once again, Joe’s acquired knowledge from his books saves the day. So I could say that read more is the intended lesson of the film (and really you should) but in actuality the final lesson to take is one of the key components of a bildungsroman. It is not enough to simply learn and grow, but you have to return and reconcile your past. I know it sounds like some new-age bullshit, but it is one of the elements of a bildungsroman and the Hero’s Journey. It is the only way to move forward. It is the reason we study history and ourselves. We desire to understand our past in the hopes of improving our future. Sometimes it is a simple measure of reuniting with our fathers or going back and forgiving those who have wronged us. Whatever our pasts, we must make our peace with them.
Thus endeth today’s lessons.