Coming of age stories have long been a staple of film, from the Stephen King classic Stand By Me and the timeless Goonies, well into the present day. That said, 2013 has been one of the strongest years for the genre in recent memory, especially since this year’s offering is comprised of well-crafted films that strive for a bit more than your standard feel-good fare.
Mud features a couple of young boys learning about the value of honesty and the perplexing but powerful nature of love through their dealings with a wily outlaw played by the increasingly incomparable Matthew McConaughey. There are great performances all around in this drama, and while some might find the measured pace or the action-packed conclusion somewhat off-putting, fans of film owe it to themselves to give this a watch. The true star of this movie, however, is the gorgeous scenery of Eudora, Arkansas whose spans of soporific river and lush woodland comprise the setting of Mud.
The Way, Way Back (2013)
The Way, Way Back, penned and directed by the supremely talented duo of Nat Faxon (The Descendants) and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on TV’s Community), chronicles the summer vacation of teenager Duncan (Liam James), who would much rather be anywhere else than with his flighty mother (Toni Collette) and her passive aggressive boyfriend (Steve Carell). The real standout performance here is from Sam Rockwell, who plays the motor-mouthed Owen, a worker at the local water park who takes Duncan under his wing and helps the young teen come out of his shell. It’s an understated and very likeable comedy that achieves both the weight of family drama and a tongue-in-cheek break dancing scene with aplomb.
Kings of Summer (2013)
All of these films are worth a couple hours of your time, but if you have to choose only one coming of age flick for 2013, I implore you to check out Kings of Summer. This film is the first feature-length project from both director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galetta, and it is decidedly funnier and more heartfelt than many films with Hollywood veterans at the helm. What’s more, Kings of Summer has a sense of style, an assuredness with its style of story-telling that draws the viewer in and feels fresh and light, but ultimately sincere.
Kings of Summer focuses on a trio of boys as they enter into the summer between their first and second year of high school. Joe (Nick Robinson) is at odds with his well-meaning, but over-bearing stepfather (Nick Offerman), who struggles to guide his adolescent son after the death of his wife. Patrick (Gabriel Basso) has a couple of very caring parents who can’t seem to give him his own space as a young adult; these are the embarrassing parents who you will always remember dropping their child off at school. The third boy, Biaggio (Moises Arias), appears not to have problems with his home life but lacks friends due to his off-putting, quirky behavior. He starts to follow Joe around and becomes a de facto friend despite his apprehension. None of these boys’ stories are tragic, but they feature a relateable discontent with life that will certainly resonate with a teenage audience, and quite possibly with many adults as well.
The three boys hatch a plan that, in their eyes, will cause them to become men. They plan to build a home for themselves out in the woods (think “no girls allowed” clubhouse on a grand scale) and live out there on nothing but their own ingenuity. Joe draws up the plans after a falling out with his father and the reluctant Patrick and enigmatic Biaggio help him “borrow” some building materials and begin construction. The boys resolve to live on the land while they are at their new home, and they become able hunters. Their first big quarry is the dumpster behind Boston Market. OK, master huntsman they ain’t, but their resourcefulness does prove impressive, and eventually you will see them become capable woodsman.
As one might expect, the disappearance of three teenagers does not go unnoticed. The farce of the parents trying to deal with the bumbling local police is hilarious and just a shade more ridiculous than reality. It’s a delight to see the stoic Offerman and histrionic Mullally (real-life couple, although not in the film) trying to encourage the cops to action despite their exasperation. This film is filled with gifted actors with a knack for making humor seem natural and not constructed. It may not have been advertised as heavily as big summer comedies like We’re the Millers and The Heat, but I laughed more during Kings of Summer than any other movie this year. The dialogue is clever and snappy, but not overly contrived or cloying like some indie comedies that try too hard. I walked away from this film with a sense of earnestness about the whole production. Even the soundtrack is outstanding, with ambient, 8-bit inspired music meant to evoke a childlike sense of adventure, hearkening to video games like The Legend of Zelda as the director elaborated in an appearance on The Nerdist podcast. It also features hip indie favorites Youth Lagoon and MGMT, but nothing can beat Phil Lynott’s soulful voice in Thin Lizzy’s classic Western ballad “Cowboy Song.”
One drawback of Kings of Summer, depending on your point-of-view, is that it is a very male-focused story. It is a powerful exploration of the father-son relationship and what the realization of manliness means to a young boy as he confronts his future. As such, female characters are given short shrift, and little to no character development. Erin Moriarty, whom viewers may recognize from ABC’s Red Widow, play’s Joe’s love interest Kelly, and Mad Men‘s always charming Alison Brie get a couple of great scenes as Joe’s older sister. That said, I feel like King of Summer’s exploration of teenage life and the convincing way that it approaches teenage angst and relationships is ultimately relateable regardless of gender. This film is rated R for language and teenage drinking, but it would make an excellent film for teenagers and parents to watch together if the teenagers are mature enough.
Kings of Summer is a beautiful film, and a signal to watch for more good films in the future from both Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Chris Galetta. It’s a fantastic addition to the coming of age genre, and if you have ever been a fan of this sort of story, you owe it to yourself to warm up your winter by watching Kings of Summer. Have a favorite coming of age film that wasn’t mentioned? What about your favorite coming of age stories in literature? Make sure to drop a comment below with your thoughts.