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June 7, 2013

Predicting the summer movie sleeper hit

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)

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