Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Way, Way Back (***)

Written and Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash


I think we've all been part of a terrible vacation - they always seem to happen at some beach house, the heat adding to the discomfort - surrounded by people you don't want to be around, pretending to have fun. Vacations are supposed to be times of absolute relaxation and endless exuberance, so when it ceases to be enjoyable, it's twice the burden. This is the plight of Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old loner with the usual social awkwardness particular to young teenage boys. His summer from Hell is on a beach in the Hamptons, where he's placed in an unbelievably charming coming-of-age story, torn between two men who are two completely different types of childish.

Duncan's parents are divorced and while his father is off in California with his much younger girlfriend, his mother Pam (Toni Colette) is now with Trent (Steve Carrell), a disturbingly self-conscious man obsessed with his own paternal masculinity around Duncan. Almost all of Trent's behavior seems to be a point to undermine his girlfriend's son, shed him of any confidence. On the drive to the beach house, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1-10. After being continually pressed, Duncan finally confides that he's probably a 6, and then Trent tells him that he's actually a 3. When they all decide to take a ride on Trent's friend's speedboat, Trent tells Duncan that he has to wear a life preserver vest since he can't swim. No one else on the boat is made to succumb to this specific requirement.

Duncan is furious with his mother, but Pam is just trying as hard as she can to rebuild the family that she's lost, even if it is with the pig-headed Trent. Duncan just wants to stay with his Dad in California, away from the East coast and the domineering Trent. His only freedom comes from riding his bike around town, exploring the nooks and crannies of the breezy tourist trap. He goes to arcades, pizza shops, and eventually squats in a buzzing water park called Water Wizz. The place is a winding wonderland of water slides, lazy rivers and squirt pistols, and the entire enterprise is run by Owen (Sam Rockwell), a scruffy-faced ne'er-do-well who's much more suited to crack inappropriate jokes then run a theme park. Owen first meets Duncan over a game of Pacman, where he's flabbergasted at the young boy's seriousness. When he sees Duncan again sulking around the park, he decides to offer him a job at Water Wizz.

Within days, Duncan realizes that Water Wizz gives him everything he wants: friends, purpose and a reason to leave the house. Owen personally takes Duncan under his wing, helping him realize his inner personality that is constantly being suppressed by Trent's abrasive behavior. It gets to where the park is the only place that Duncan ever wants to be. The only thing that he enjoys when he's actually home is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of the woman living next door to Trent's beach house. She is the only person, outside of Pam, who doesn't see Duncan as a pathetic misanthrope, and with his job at Water Wizz helping him find confidence, he quickly sees that he can make this summer something to remember. If only he can help his mother realize how pathetic Trent is, then everything can be set exactly the way that he wants it.

The film is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the comic duo that recently won an Oscar for helping Alexander Payne write the screenplay to The Descendants. They showed in both that film and this one that they have a touch for finding comedy within the tragic aspects of isolation and familial disturbances. But Faxon and Rash are not Alexander Payne, and their cinematic eye isn't as polished. It is their first film, though, and The Way, Way Back is delightfully solid debut. What the film's screenplay lacks in believable development (Susanna's attraction to Duncan is particularly contrived, since we're given no legit reason for this and for all of Duncan's nice qualities, he's not exactly the sunniest young man on the planet), it makes up for in sharp dialogue and fully-fleshed out characters each completing an arc that's satisfying if a bit predictable.

The true power of this sweet film comes from two veteran comic actors each fully embracing their characters. As Trent, Steve Carrell is probably as dark as he's ever been. Even his gay, suicidal uncle in Little Miss Sunshine wasn't as brooding and conniving, a near monster. But Carrell never plays him as a true monster, but instead as a egomaniac fighting mid-life crisis level insecurity and taking it out on his girlfriend's son. As Owen, Sam Rockwell is a line-o-rama marathon, a ball of overwhelming childish charm. Owen becomes Duncan's mentor by accident, but obviously cherishes the opportunity to have someone listen to him and not treat him like a goofball disappointment. It's an example of how reliable and consistent Rockwell is as a performer, being able to slip in to roles so comfortably where it almost feels like he's playing himself.

The film includes several female supporting performances, including Colette as Pam, as well as Maya Rudolph as Caitlin, Owen's nagging co-manager, and Allison Janney as Betty, the overbearing neighbor and mother of Susanna. Rudolph, Colette and Janney are all terrific - as they usually are - but the film's script doesn't give them a whole lot to do. Pam and Caitlin are basically told to sit back and accept the abuse that they get from their men, Trent and Owen, and its to Rudolph and Colette's credit that they don't come across as completely pathetic. Colette, in particular, finds the nobility in Pam's fragile emotional state, but I really wish these terrific actresses could get the roles that they deserve. Janney goes on to prove that there isn't a role that she can't master. She plays Betty as a totally aloof alcoholic, preferring to be the friend that everybody hates than to not have any friends at all. Her total amorality is just another reason why its hard to believe that Susanna could turn out that way, with Betty as her mother.

Liam James' performance as Duncan is fine. With Mud and Ginger & Rosa providing great work from Elle Fanning and Tye Sheridan, it gets harder and harder to excuse Mendoza line work just cause the actors are children. And I don't mean to say that James is bad in the film, but he's definitely overshadowed by Rockwell, Carell and Janney. The Way, Way Back is an unbelievably sweet tale of growth and maturity, made even better by its performances. I've always enjoyed Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in their own work (including both having small performances in this film), and their script with Payne really was a masterwork in comic tragedy in 2011. If anything, the film confirmed what everyone should already believe: Sam Rockwell is awesome, and the fact that he's never become a true movie star is one of the great tragedies of the American entertainment industry.

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