Once, in the supermarket, I saw a little kid sitting inside his mom's deep shopping cart, building his own fort out of canned vegetables and boxes of cereal. Later, at home, he probably did the same thing with a giant box or some blankets. If there is a child on the planet who doesn't want her/his own private physical space in which to invent arbitrary rules about living then that child is a Small Wonder-style robot. Teenagers, generally more mobile, tend to discard this practice in favor of simply leaving the house as often as possible, but that need to assert dominance over their own destiny is a constant.
Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), along with their new friend, a machete-wielding/non-sequitur-spouting machine named Biaggio (Moises Arias), are annoyed with life. Their parents (Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally) are smothering and out of touch or else traveling a rocky path of widowhood, which means that nobody will give the boys privacy for regular hour-length showers or the freedom to come and go as they please. These irritating adults also ruin games of Monopoly, which is kind of the last straw. So in true Johnny Cash-inspired, "One Piece at a Time" fashion, they build -- fairly quickly and without anyone taking much notice -- a functioning house in the woods. Then they run away to live there for the summer. They're not running from much, obviously, but rational thought rarely enters into this kind of thing. Meanwhile, their ramshackle cabin is somehow simultaneously invisibility-cloaked and unfindable by the local authorities and also close enough to a Boston Market so that when hunting animals turns out to be more difficult than they had imagined they don't starve during their extended adventure in simulated adulthood.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta love these kids, that's clear, and they're compassionate toward the young men's collective desire to grow up. More than once Joe asserts the group's mission to "be our own men" and to establish, at least for a little while, an entirely masculinist, He-Man Woman-Haters Club. The camerawork even lends the purer expressions of unrestrained maleness a kind of budget-mythic Terrence Malick quality, every once in a while asserting the necessity and beauty of this sort of cusp-of-adulthood rebellion. That is, until the filmmakers change their mind about what kind of story they want to tell and opt for a mostly witty Sundance-branded coming-of-age sitcom featuring lucky good looks, accelerated maturity, sexual ease, quick wits, cooperative facial hair and a distinct lack of teenage awkwardness. In other words, everything that Moonrise Kingdom and The Perks of Being a Wallflower were not.
This becomes the film's biggest problem. Without trouble, teenage life becomes "the best years of your life," the sort of thing to look back on fondly as adult complications dig in. And protagonists lacking a stickier set of problems walk away so cleanly you barely remember anything they accomplished. It's not quite enough to show Joe being pranked by his classmates; he still looks like James Franco and is destined to run the school not long after freshman year is over. That makes the character's temporary peevish angst (odd, considering he's also allegedly grieving the loss of his mother) the equivalent of candles on that 18th birthday cake, way too easy to blow out.