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The Kings of Summer

From left: Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in "The Kings of Summer." CBS Films photo

Having been both, I can attest that teenage boys and indie filmmakers sometimes take themselves too seriously. They rhapsodize about getting close to the beating heart of the human experience, but few of them could catch a fish or build a fire to cook it.

The makers of the coming-of-age comedy “The Kings of Summer” let the air out of ballooning egos and replace it with laughing gas. Starting with an absurdist script by Chris Galletta, first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts creates a woozy spoof that struggles to get on its feet but ends up hitting the gut as well as the funny bone.

The film’s original title, when it premiered to acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was “Toy’s House,” a reference to the runaway protagonist’s home in the woods. But another alternative might be “Napoleon Dynamite Goes into the Wild to Join the Goonies’ Fight Club.”

Shy, sensitive Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is 14 and recovering from his mother’s death in the summer between his ninth- and 10th-grade school years. His father, Frank, is the type of tyrant who actually says things like “My house, my rules,” but Nick Offerman imbues the character with a deadpan cynicism like Bill Murray’s.

When Joe’s had enough of his dad’s denial, the boy escapes to a clearing in the woods with his best friend, wrestler Patrick (St. Louis native Gabriel Basso), whose parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are unbearably chipper. Tagging along to help the boys build a fort is a strange little kid called Biaggo (Moises Arias), who wields a machete like an action hero but offhandedly says he lacks a gender identity.

Their idea of roughing it is to scavenge half-eaten chicken from a nearby Boston Market; but things get serious as their parents grow worried and the oasis is visited by outsiders, including a copperhead snake and a classmate (Erin Moriarty) on whom Joe has a crush. It’s a relief that none of the subplots follow the expected path.

“The Kings of Summer” is a bit undernourished to fit into the crown of a comedy classic. But the sharp wit, soft-focus cinematography and slow-motion lyricism lift it into the realm of this summer’s nicest surprises.

What “The Kings of Summer” • Three stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:33 • Content Strong language and underage drinking • Where Plaza Frontenac

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.