Monday, July 15, 2013

The Way, Way Back

First of all, what do you call an indie – you know, the thoughtful, supposedly well-written, character-driven film that plays at the Landmark chain, not at your local multi-plex? I want a label for that kind of film, but some film writers object to the term “indie” because it’s not precisely true that all these films are “independent.” So, give me a label!

That said, the recent The Way, Way Back, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is “that kind of film:” modestly budgeted, thoughtfully written, character-driven. In this one, Liam James plays Duncan, a troubled young teen struggling to come out of his shell. All the ingredients are here – his divorced mother, played by Toni Collette, has taken up with a self-centered jerk named Trent (Steve Carell) whose stringent approach is not so good for Duncan’s self-confidence. Stuck at Trent’s beach house somewhere on the Massachusetts coast, Duncan meets neighbor Betty (Alison Janney), a joyful alcoholic, and her teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) with whom Duncan makes monosyllabic attempts to communicate. And where does Duncan learn to come out of his shell? Oddly enough, at the local water park, Water Wizz, where Owen (Sam Rockwell), the wastrel owner who lives in a small apartment on the premises, teaches Duncan about life and humor and standing up for oneself.

Throughout the course of this mostly enjoyable film, we get the expected development, setbacks, and triumphs. Duncan learns a sense of humor, gains courage, and kisses the girl - or tries to, at least. Trent is not the best match for Duncan's mother, and though she is afraid to strike out on her own, she learns the importance of getting to know her son before it's too late. Meanwhile, Betty goes on being a joyful alcoholic. Janney's performance will most likely earn an Oscar nomination; Carell, Collette, and Rockwell have garnered Oscar buzz as well.

The film holds touching moments of realism; other moments fall flat or don't ring true. But the depiction of Water Wizz and its employees is spot on! I know this from experience because I've taken my kids to this water park in Wareham, Massachusetts, which is not far over the Bourne Bridge from Cape Cod, and I can say that he film effectively captures Water Wizz in all its brightness and good times on the surface as well as its sad shabbiness under the surface. Rockwell is perfect as the aimless, good-for-nothing owner who ironically teaches Duncan how to live life, and Maya Rudolph is superb as Caitlin, the overworked gal who really runs the show and would like something more out of life than Water Wizz. Caitlin, Owen: I've met people like this servicing the summer fun on Cape Cod. Trent, Colette, Betty: I've seen them too, renting beach houses in Centerville.

The Way, Way Back pins the locations and the characters right on, but the writing and the development of Duncan's character don't always ring true.

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