By Stephanie Merry
The Washington Post
Since its release in July 2006, "Little Miss Sunshine" has been the sleeper hit that other summer art-house films aspire to be. Opening in just seven theaters during its first weekend, the nutty family road trip comedy went on to rake in nearly $60 million domestically and win two Oscars. Not bad for a film with a reported $8 million budget, written and directed by first-timers.
Every year since, filmgoers and critics try to predict what the next "Little Miss Sunshine" will be.
"The Kings of Summer" could be this season's sleeper hit. The movie follows a trio of high-schoolers who grow so fed up with their overbearing parents they decide to run away from home and live in the woods.
In a movie season better known for superhero blockbusters backed by unfathomable dollars, will this small film make a big splash?
"It's sort of up to the fates," says Megan Mullally, the veteran comic actress who plays the blathering mother of one of the boys. "If I was asked, I'd say, 'Oh my God, "Kings of Summer" is going to do great; it's going to shatter box-office records, everyone is going to see it, everyone is going to love it,' because I think it's great. But then you never know at the end of the day."
Looking at the surprise cinematic winners of summers past - such films as "Napoleon Dynamite," "The Kids Are All Right" and "Stand By Me" - certain shared elements emerge. Critical praise is less important than a few other factors, including a summertime essence and a lot of laughs. (See Ann Hornaday's review of "The Kings of Summer.")
Here are the key ingredients for a summer sleeper and why "Kings" looks to be this year's indie darling. But it isn't the only movie that could surprise; we've identified several other candidates opening in the next few months.
Element 1: Capture that ethereal summertime feel
Recent examples: "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012), which takes place at a scouts' camp on a remote island; "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2012), in which British senior citizens travel to India.
Sleeper hits can land any time of year, but the ones that strike it big between May and September generally are marked by a nostalgic ambience. There's a carefree sense of escape, though it's impossible to shake the inevitability of autumn.
"The Kings of Summer" captures what it's like being a teen after the school year ends, with both the feeling of freedom and imprisonment. Sure, there are afternoons of video games and late-night parties, but there's also yardwork to be done and family Monopoly nights to endure. The movie's idyllic setting, once the teens go AWOL, is full of trees for climbing and quarries for cliff-jumping.
"The parts of Ohio around Cleveland that we shot were so beautiful, that they sort of reminded me of my fantasies of youth," said Nick Offerman, who plays the no-nonsense father of Joe, one of the teenagers. "This is what I wished it had looked like."
The film's woodsy montages, featuring the boys splashing in the water, racing through fields and making music by banging on pipes, were captured when director Jordan Vogt-Roberts took the three teenage actors, Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias, into the forest and let them do what boys do.
"This film is kind of like an ode to my childhood," Robinson, 18, said. "It was just nice to go back and be a kid and mess around in the woods. It brought me back."
Another 2013 sleeper: "The Way, Way Back" follows a disgruntled teenager (Liam James) on summer break. His escape comes when he befriends a water park employee (Sam Rockwell) who offers him a job. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote "The Descendants" with Alexander Payne, penned the script, and "Little Miss Sunshine" alums Steve Carell and Toni Collette are among the film's stars. (Opens July 5)
Element 2: Mix a dash of drama with a lot of levity
Recent example: "(500) Days of Summer" (2009), which could have been a tragedy about heartbreak if it weren't for a song-and-dance number and other amusing interludes.
Maybe it's the long hours of daylight or impending vacations, but summer months somehow become linked with our optimistic pursuit of happiness. The movie releases generally follow suit. A dark drama with political overtones can wait until later in the year, when Oscar chatter starts heating up. Summer sleeper hits carefully balance solemnity with laughter.
There is drama in Chris Galletta's script for "The Kings of Summer," especially when it comes to the combative interactions between Robinson's character and his single father, played by Offerman.
"I haven't had the chance to play a lot of emotional roles where I get to have a relationship evolve over an arc over the course of a film," Offerman said.
Audiences may recognize the universal difficulties of navigating that agonizing period known as adolescence. And yet for all the film's calamities, including unrequited love and broken friendships, there's a sense of grand possibility.
"I can remember that feeling of unlimited potential and that excitement of: What is the world going to bring to me? And what am I going to bring to the world?" Mullally said.
While pre-adulthood can prove painful, it's also ripe for jokes, especially the parent-child interactions. Basso's character ends up with hives because of constant nagging from his mother, played by Mullally.
"Why do I need to micromanage what shirt he's wearing?" she said. "And yet it's so true."
Adds Basso: "Rarely do I laugh reading a comedy script, but this one was unique."
Another 2013 sleeper: Actress Lake Bell makes her writing and directing debut with "In a World . . .," a film that also mines familial relations for laughs. Bell plays a voice coach who can never live up to her father, the king of movie trailer voiceovers. (Opens Aug. 9)
Element 3: Fill the cast with scene-stealers
Recent example: "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), in which each of the character actors (including Collette, Carell, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin) contributed memorable scenes of humor and pathos.
Summer sleeper hits might be devoid of the highest-paid stars, but they are often elevated by an ensemble of actors that seem optimally cast.
"Kings" draws from a pool of television stars and character actors, including the hilarious real-life husband-and-wife team of Offerman, whose character Ron Swanson from "Parks and Recreation" has his own cult following, and Mullally.
"Community" star Alison Brie and Basso, from "The Big C," play larger roles, and there is also a long list of indelible cameos. Mary Lynn Rajskub ("24") plays a bumbling police officer trying (but not too hard) to find the boys and Kumail Nanjiani ("Franklin & Bash") plays a Chinese food deliveryman whose "American name is Gary."
"I think [the cameos] kind of send the movie into a different stratosphere," Mullally said. "You have that level of comedy combined so seamlessly with the sort of lyrical quality of other parts of the movie."
Adds Offerman: "Every single person we had to work with was the funniest person I'd ever met, and that was such a smart move on [Vogt-Roberts'] part."
Another 2013 potential sleeper: "The Spectacular Now" stars up-and-comers Miles Teller, who was a stand-out in the otherwise forgettable "21 & Over," and Shailene Woodley (who wowed in "The Descendants") as two high school seniors that run with different crowds and strike up an unlikely friendship. The pair won an acting award when the film premiered at Sundance. (Opens Aug. 9)
Element 4: Pinpoint the next big thing
Recent example: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (2012), which introduced writer-director Benh Zeitlin and young actress Quvenzhane Wallis, both of whom were nominated for Oscars.
Stumbling upon a small but wonderful movie or a promising actor before the buzz starts building feels like an exciting discovery, and one people feel the need to share, which might explain the wildfire word-of-mouth factor when a sleeper hit connects.
"The Kings of Summer" has its fair share of newcomers. It's the first feature for both writer Galletta and director Vogt-Roberts, and the young stars likely will be new faces for most audience members.
Arias, a child actor best known for a recurring role in "Hannah Montana," proves to be an especially worthwhile revelation. Playing the kooky misfit Biaggio, the 19-year-old's deadpan delivery of preposterous non sequiturs even elicited a laugh from the famously stone-faced Offerman. "I made him break once," Arias said. "A very proud moment."
Another 2013 potential sleeper: "Much Ado About Nothing" is Joss Whedon's black-and-white adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Shot in just 12 days at the director's L.A. home, the film reunites many of Whedon's usual collaborators (Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof) plus one promising newcomer: Jillian Morgese plays Hero, which is quite a get for the young actress whose only other credit is as an extra in "The Avengers." (Opens June 21)