Sundance Review: 'Toy's House'

High schooler Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is bored with his mundane existence. He's tired of his overbearing father (Nick Offerman) and sick of trying to win the attention of his crush, Kelly (Erin Moriarty). He spends most of his time with his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who is equally plagued by teen ennui. When Joe and Patrick simply can't stand their lives anymore, Joe concocts a plan for them and a strange new friend, Biaggio (Moises Arias), to live in the woods in a house they build out of spare scraps of wood. The three boys spend their days hunting and gathering and attempting to find out what it means to be a man in a world that wants to keep them down.

There's a sense of discovery throughout, from exploring young love to attempting to make peace with one's family. Patrick's parents, exquisitely played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson, are the quintessential suburban parents trying to connect with their son, much to his chagrin and confusion. Joe clashes constantly with his father, who is at a loss as to how to parent alone after the death of Joe's mother, while his sister (Alison Brie) is preoccupied with her own life and can't spare much mental space for Joe's problems.

Nick Robinson's quick wit and charm that carries the film through the slower moments, and his adventurous but simultaneously lazy spirit and easy good looks mark this young actor as one to watch. Equally good is Gabriel Basso, and the interactions between the two boys are filled with genuine affection and friendship. The rest of the cast perform their supporting roles adequately, though Offerman seems to be stuck the grumpy mode of his "Parks and Recreation" character, and Alison Brie adds little as the flighty sister.

This is the first script from writer Chris Galletta and the first feature for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts; the results are a bit uneven, mostly in the emotional tenor of the film which awkwardly blends more serious moments with bizarre humor. "Toy's House" is downright hilarious at times, mostly thanks to Biaggio's entirely off-the-cuff statements and Offerman's dry humor. However, the script relies too heavily on Arias's character's randomness. Basing an entire main character around saying nonsense without ever delving into his or her inner life is lazy writing.

The film is beautiful at times, especially in the woods, all leafy greens and flowing streams; these scenes use music from composer Ryan Miller particularly well. The boys' hapless attempts to feed themselves and live on their own terms belie that belief when we are young that we are immortal, that nothing can stand in our way once we've decided on a course of action. "Toy's House" taps into something essential in all of us, the desire of wanting to provide for one's self and to be taken seriously on our own terms, and the film captures some of the difficulty of being on the brink of adulthood, three teens that are no longer children yet not quite full-fledged adults.

"Toy's House" is a wonderful mix of innocence, laughter and beauty that is enjoyable in the moment, yet it's almost entirely forgettable. With too many odd asides and complications, what should have been a straightforward journey into self-discovery and the difficulties of growing up is waylaid by unnecessary moments and slightly self-indulgent filmmaking.

Grade: B-