The debut feature film for Funny or Die veteran Jordan Vogt-Roberts, The Kings of Summer is a hodgepodge of indie cinema clichés. After all, it’s a story about a boy’s journey of self discovery as he approaches manhood, the main character has endured the death of his mother, and it’s designed to be plotless and soulful, not to mention it was overhyped at the Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, none of this actually translates into an overly successful endeavour. The Kings of Summer is a wildly inconsistent feature, providing scenes that approach brilliance before slipping back into utter mediocrity. While it’s clear that Vogt-Roberts aspired to create something profound and transformative, it falls short of the mark. It’s nice to see something that’s not a remake, reboot or sequel, but a defter touch would be appreciated.

An average teenage boy, Joe (Nick Robinson) is doing it tough due to the death of his mother, and locks horns with his dad Frank (Nick Offerman) on a consistent basis. Fed up with his father and wanting to escape, Joe hatches a plan to build a house in the middle of a nearby forest, away from all adult supervision. Joining Joe is his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who also runs out of patience for his parents, while weird outsider Biaggio (Moisés Arias) tags along as well. Making a new home for themselves, the boys enjoy the sense of liberation, while their guardians frantically spearhead a search to find their missing offspring. Joe eventually brings his long-time crush Kelly (Erin Moriarty) into the picture, which challenges friendships as she begins to express interest in Patrick.

The Kings of Summer concerns itself with emotional character arcs and coming-of-age dramatics, but none of this material comes across as overly weighty or affecting. In fact, the film packs no emotional punch at all, lacking the power that Stand by Me delivered back in 1986. Moreover, the script by Chris Galletta is about as subtle as a shotgun, dutifully spelling out and underlining every thought that crosses a character’s mind. On more than one occasion, the characters point out that them living in the woods is like their rite of passage into adulthood, as if we didn’t figure that out for ourselves. One also gets the sense that the movie doesn’t exploit its full potential – the creation of the house takes up the length of a montage, yet it would’ve been fascinating to watch the trials and tribulations of the construction in detail. On that note, Vogt-Roberts is too enamoured with the power of montage, embracing his inner Terrence Malick as he observes characters running around and staring into the distance.

Other script issues abound, with Biaggio’s presence never given a suitable motivation (the boys themselves even question why he’s around), and with a love triangle emerging that will ultimately tear Joe and Patrick’s friendship apart. Said love triangle is relevant considering the themes, but it appears to come from nowhere, and the film fails to really get into the psyches of the characters. Didn’t Patrick know about Joe’s affections for Kelly? And was Kelly really that oblivious to Joe’s crush? Speaking of shallow characters, the film has to tell us that Joe and Patrick are lifelong best buddies – we never really feel that the two are actually that close, as they seem more like casual acquaintances.

At times, The Kings of Summer positively springs to life, delivering skilful vignettes that instil the sense of outdoor adventure and boyhood spirit that Vogt-Roberts was palpably aiming for. But too often, the picture feels oddly flat and muted, and more critically comes off as manufactured. Vogt-Roberts’ style is a bit confused; The Kings of Summer feels like a try-hard attempt to come off as uniquely quirky, like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (which tackled similar themes far more effectively), but it’s not quite successful. Furthermore, one gets the sense that the material might have worked better if it was given a more dramatic treatment like Stand by Me, which didn’t baulk from outright tragedy. It’s a big problem that the comedic moments of The Kings of Summer aren’t very funny, and the dramatic moments are strangely ineffectual. Nevertheless, the movie does look good, with lavish forest locations, and an ideally-designed DIY house for the boys to inhabit. The editing and photography is a bit skewiff at times, but the production values are still competent enough to maintain interest throughout.

The acting across the board is a strange mixed bag. By far, the best performer here is Offerman as Joe’s dad. The long-time Parks and Recreation star has a perfect grasp on comedy and drama, and he makes the most of his extensive talents here. Also worthwhile is Offerman’s real-life wife Megan Mullally, who’s eminently quirky as Patrick’s mother. In terms of the young performers, the only real bright spot is the effortlessly charming Erin Moriarty, whose youth makes her wholly believable in the role of Kelly. Unfortunately, Robinson and Basso make little impact. It’s not that they’re terrible, but they lack screen presence, coming across as exceedingly vanilla. Moisés Arias, on the other hand, feels overly forced as the trademark quirky friend. He’s not bad, but at no point does his character seem convincingly lived-in.

For a movie that wants to explore the transition from boyhood to manhood, The Kings of Summer is surprisingly low on honesty, relying on caricatures and rarely venturing beneath the surface. It’s a fun and innocuous enough picture in the moment which prevents one from actively hating it, but it falls far short of its potential. In between the moments of excellence, there is a lot of hooey and dead air, making this a missed opportunity, though a valiant one.

5.8/10