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.

2 comments:

Steve's Blog said...

Hello there!
I just saw The Way, Way Back this morning and was surprised at how moved I was by it. I felt a personal connection with the Sam Rockwell character and maybe that is why I reacted so strongly and fondly for this film.

I have heard the film described as "predictable" and you even reference how it goes through "usual setbacks." While I concur the plot and structure are standard, formulaic screenwriting, the payoffs, dialogue, and the details in the characters' interactions are anything but standard or predictable. There is nothing very tidy about the resolutions for these characters.

Films like this, Sideways, About Schmidt, or anything by Alexander Payne for that matter make me excited. They hold up a mirror to all the ugly idiosyncrasies that some quiet observers may notice, but are too shy, polite, or afraid to address. This film is reassuring, like a friend who "just gets it."

I like how you mention that you know people like those in the film. I can identify with that completely here on the Cape. And the performances are indeed first-rate. I like the subtlety of Collette as she shows how genuinely torn and afraid she is between her responsibility as a mother and her need for love.

Great review!

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve. Glad you enjoyed the movie. I guess some of this is predictable, but, as you say, I got the sense that nothing was tidy about the resolutions for Duncan and his mother, especially for her. Don't think I connected with this one as deeply as you did, but it was a good movie.