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.|
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.|
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!|
Two as one rating: ***1/4 out of ****