Of all the films that concern themselves with the insular world of average American high school students, one issue appears to take precedence above all others: the loss of one’s virginity. The quest to ditch the V-card has frequently been treated as a comic pursuit, but with Almost Kings, writer-director Philip G. Flores acknowledges its potential for gravitas. Plenty of us can look back to our younger years and smirk at our own incredible naiveté, but for Flores’ protagonist, high school freshman Ted Wheeler (Lorenzo James Henrie), that same awkward struggle for validation comes with frightening consequences.
Unable to rely on his abusive, neglectful father for guidance, Ted instead looks up to and even idolizes his older brother “Truck” (Alex Frost). Eager to fit in with Truck and his friends, who together call themselves the Kings, Ted, despite having no sexual experience, joins in their “game” to see who among the group can score with the most freshman girls. A smart, well-liked kid, Ted already has a lot going for him without getting involved with the hard-partying Kings—his brother even tells him so—but he ignores all this in his desire to impress his older brother, even as he encounters the more disturbing aspects of Truck’s personality.
The boundaries of Truck’s role as older brother are strangely erratic. He is perturbed when Ted unexpectedly arrives at a party with two six-packs but has no qualms about instructing his younger brother to rape a girl while she’s passed out drunk. Fortunately, Flores addresses these inconsistencies as the film progresses, gradually revealing Truck’s darker side as the pressures mount. And Frost is well cast as Truck, who is ostensibly a complete reversal of the actor’s previous turn as one of the young killers in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, yet his jock exterior is charged with a similarly manic charisma.
Flores avoids reducing his teen-aged characters to bland archetypes in his effort to create a realistic environment capable of anchoring the increasingly weighty material. There are no thirty-year-olds barely passing as high school students. Ted and the Kings speak bluntly, not with overly conscious slang but in tense, aggressively charged exchanges whose liberal use of the word “fuck” never feels forced or unnecessary. And though the dialogue between the younger cast members is occasionally stilted, Flores for the most part achieves a thoughtful, convincing depiction of teenage interaction, which isn’t as simple as it might seem—certainly a lesser director couldn’t yield half as many credible displays of underage drunkenness as Flores does here.
Often a film that focus on teens–regardless of whether it’s dramatic or comedic–aims for a sense of realism, hoping the audience can connect with its portrayal of high school life without compromising whatever trappings make it unique. To his film’s benefit, Flores doesn’t forget that his characters aren’t just teenagers: Ted and Truck will be adults very soon, and they’re already realizing their actions bear consequences that reach further than they might be willing to admit, which means every decision the brothers make feels all the more harrowing. Almost Kings may deal in well-trod “virgin” territory (oxymoronic pun absolutely intended), but in doing so it achieves unexpected weight.