Monday, July 22, 2013

The Way, Way Back

By Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

                There is a point in every child’s life when they look at their parents making a dumb decision or saying something out of line and think, “This is the person who tells me what I can and can’t do?”  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back is about this sentiment, and how it is compounded by the presence of strange new people that come with divorce. Using this as a jumping off point, the film examines the forces that draw people together, both good and bad.  The good being empathy that brings comfort and meaning, while the bad being insecurity that brings alienation and discontentment.
                Children, as the film’s title suggests, are generally relegated to the back seat, and by nature are destined for resentment.  The back seat not only implies children are to acquiesce, but that they are to quietly witness their elders interact, bicker, and in some cases manipulate each other.  The reality this film recognizes is that many times the vantage point of the back seat is the best place to assess the intentions of others, and children have far more insight than they are usually given credit for.
                Lest all this sound too dour, it must be iterated that this film is a comedy, and a quite funny one at that.  With a wealth of witty sarcasm and situational humor that flows from the oddities of its characters, it strikes a many times nice, but sometimes shaky balance between family drama and madcap hijinks.  Yet, the film has an easy rhythm to it and its plot is believably propelled by the impulses of its teenage protagonist Duncan (Liam James) to act out once he recognizes he cannot interject or object without a seeming lack of respect.  Many similar “coming of age” films would succumb to the pressure to provide simple answers for family troubles, but this film demonstrates it is many times better to be heartfelt and bittersweet than pad or preachy.  More than anything, in the overload of action-based adventures this summer, it was a welcome change of pace to think about characters for a while.

Strong *** out of ****

                Jim Rash and Nat Faxon are increasingly establishing themselves as fantastic new writing talents.  Having already won Oscars for their screenplay for The Descendants along with Alexander Payne, Rash and Naxon continue to capture the idiosyncrasies of everyday life in a poignant way and with comedic sensibility.  Now, Rash and Naxon jump into the director’s seat with beautiful results – The Way, Way Back is an earnest coming of age story that frequently moved me to tears.
                In general, the character work is fantastic thanks to both writing and acting, as each person has depth and an arc that is honest, even occasionally heartbreakingly so.  Noticeably, the film is filled with pitch-perfect performances from nearly everyone in both the main and supporting casts.  Even the teen-protagonist played by Liam James is filled with believable humanity and awkwardness that is never overdone.  Necessarily, nothing that happens is particularly “big” – but the film manages to make the small gestures and choices into big things that the characters in its world are likely to see them as.  It was refreshing to see such loveliness and essential smallness amongst the big action films and wreckage we have seen so far this summer.  Beautifully paced and gingerly told, I highly recommend this as a respite from the string of blockbusters you have most likely undertaken.

*** ½ out of ****

Duncan and Owen, the magical mentor.
                I am glad to see we both enjoyed this film.  While it is not an essential film by any means, it is the kind of indie comedy that cares about its story in a way few larger productions do.  There is no spectacle here, as its most impressive moments are not grandiose, but involve the subtle appearances of reluctant smiles or gestures.  I particularly liked the performance of Sam Rockwell as waterpark owner and unlikely mentor Owen, who inserts himself into Duncan’s life and offers connection and purposeful direction despite his own childlike habits.  I always find it impressive when a performance is nuanced despite a character’s big personality.  Some may complain that Owen fulfills the trope of a magical mentor, but after some thought I would disagree.  We are given short glimpses of why Owen would reach out to and identify with Duncan, but the film simply seems to recognize these hints are of little importance in the end to its main thread of Duncan’s identity formation – Duncan badly sought to be accepted and loved, so when he does not question or research Owen’s motives, neither must we.  Few youth think deeply about the motivations of others, as they are too concerned with hiding their own insecurities, and I thought this film captured that well.

Blunt Betty.
                Rockwell’s performance as a man-child in the tenderest sense was one performance among many
that I found excellent.  Especially great is Toni Collette, who plays Duncan’s mother, Pam.  Pam is a recently divorced woman with a teenage son, dating Trent (Steve Carell).  She is clearly trying really hard at this “girlfriend” thing, which is mostly new to her, as well as juggling how to make the relationship work between Duncan and Trent, who don’t seem to like each other all that much.  In addition, she is a human who is fearful and uncertain and insecure herself.  I loved the moments between Pam and Betty (Allison Janney, also wonderful).  Betty is lost herself, but is less uncertain about it, choosing instead to put her problems right out there instead.  Blunt Betty makes Pam feel more valued, more normal, not necessarily because Betty is so out-of-control, but she has this easiness that allows others to be themselves around her.  Also great is the final sequence (that I won’t spoil), and that’s mostly because Toni Collette acts the hell out of it.  Exquisite work.

Collette and Carell, as childish adults.
                You know a film has an impressive ensemble when the weakest performance comes from Steve Carell, though he was not at all bad.  I tend to think his effectiveness was simply held back by viewer expectations.  I find it interesting to hear snickers from the crowd at the mere presence of a comedic actor, almost as if the crowd is eagerly asking, “Okay buddy, what you got for me?”  In that way, casting a comedic star of Carell’s magnitude in such a loathsome part may have been a mistake.  Apart from that, though, I couldn’t agree more that this film thrives on its performances, and nearly everyone was pitch perfect.

                And Steve Carell was actually good!  The experience was odd though, because while I went into the film knowing more or less what to expect, a lot of people probably went because their expectation was to see a Steve Carell comedy vehicle.  And it wasn’t that at all – it was funny, sure, but Carell was mostly a side character, and he was probably the least funny part of the film.

                Apart from that possible miscasting, most of the movie was pitch perfect.  Only in rare moments does the film feel contrived (the climactic “race” sequence being the major culprit), and while some of its sequences may seem odd from a distance, they make sense because they come about by the natural movements and motivations of its characters.  This character consistency was a welcome change of pace for summer viewing.
                Yet, the film is not simply a study of characters, but rather has something meaningful to say about age, perception, and human connection.  I would say its main message is that adults and children can be immature, but the reality is that when adults act in this way, their actions deeply affect the children who look to them for love and support.  Furthermore, we cannot define immaturity by way of awkwardness or goofiness, for the film’s most thoughtful characters were both of these things, while its more socially refined characters were the most selfish.  Yet, the world many times fails to see this and looks down on goofiness and elevates manners despite what may lie beneath.

                I appreciated the message that parents need to be parents, not best buddies, with their children.  We saw this a lot in the relationship between Trent and his teenaged daughter, who knows that she can basically do anything she wants when he’s around because he just wants her to like him.  This urge to be liked by your kids is a tough one to not indulge, but part of being a parent is knowing what is best for your children, not just following what they want.

                That is definitely a message to take to heart, especially if you are a people-pleaser like myself.  At some point, I will need to be comfortable saying no, as this is a very important word in a parent-child relationship.  Not to say I plan to be a strict disciplinarian, but rather that my ultimate purpose will not be to please my children.

Summer lovin'/happened so fast!
                As usual, a “small” movie has given us far more to talk about than the “big” blockbusters.  We didn’t even talk about the romantic aspects of the film, which are all subtle, nuanced, and provide further insight into character motivations.  In fact, I found pretty much everything in this film worked well.  It’s a beautiful, honest, human, and mostly light fare that should be on your view list for the summer.

Two as one rating: ***1/4 out of ****


No comments:

Post a Comment