Monday, August 26, 2013

'The Way, Way Back' (2013) directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

The plot of the The Way, Way Back is so weirdly specific it must be real.  An awkward, introverted teenager is brought out of his adolescent funk by working in a water park.  It's a strange concept, simultaneously utterly mundane  and off the wall.  The film is set in the modern day yet feels oddly timeless, a cocktail of quasi-retro imagery that feels ripped straight from the 70s or 80s.

The fourteen year old Duncan (Liam James) is our mixed up teenage lead.  He's been dragged off to a beachside holiday by his mother, Pam (Toni Colette) and her new partner Trent (Steve Carell).  The aim of this getaway is to properly get to know each other, have some lighthearted fun and learn how to gel as a family unit.  Duncan wants none of it.  From moment one we realise that his would-be stepfather is a domineering alpha-male manipulator, content to bully people into submission with passive aggressive jabs rather than make any real connection.  Duncan, faintly echoing Hamlet, finds himself faintly disgusted by his mother for falling such an obvious dickhead.  Adding to his woes is Trent's daughter Steph, a beautiful yet vapid teenager who takes every opportunity to tease and mock him. Faced with this misery it's not surprising he clams up, sitting in sullen silence while everyone cavorts in the sun around him.

This is the classic set up for a coming of age film; Duncan is a primed firework, just waiting for someone to light his touchpaper and cause him to blossom into someone who's happy, secure and confident.  That spark is provided by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner of of 'Water Wiz', a pretty generic slides n' wave pools water park.  Owen is an eccentric goof, the inheritor of the park, happy enough coasting through life on the relatively modest income it provides.  Owen spots some potential in Duncan, befriends him, gives him a job at the park and gradually draws him out of his shell.

There's a very subtle eccentricity to this movie.  An awkward teenager getting a summer job that improves his social skills isn't at all out of the ordinary, which is precisely why it's an odd subject for a film.  Directors Faxon and Rash consciously boil the story down to the personal level, intently focussing on character relationships to the exclusion of all else.  In a more typical film you might expect a subplot about the water park itself under threat, our hero saving the day at the last minute to the cheers of his peers.  This doesn't happen, in fact, the organic way the plot develops suggests that the events of the film are based on real events.  Tellingly, the directors even weave themselves into the fabric of the film, appearing (in fairly large parts) as employees of the water park.

Paradoxically, this personal focus ended up slightly alienating. This is a trip into slice of real Americana: the characters travel in a retro Buick, a set piece revolves around the 4th of July celebration, to the just slightly odd food and the slightly twisted social interactions.  The  best comparison I can think of is that the setting feels a bit like the town of Amity in Jaws before the shark shows up.  After watching the film I was completely clueless about what the title was referring to, and felt a little nonplussed when I found it refers to a common US term for the back-facing rear seat of a station wagon. It's not that I couldn't deal with these admittedly minor cultural differences as the film, and I never for a second lost sight of the emotional thread of the film.  The problem is that the storytelling is otherwise so clear that anything that gets in the way becomes a slight distraction.

It's difficult to say whether the obviously personal tone of the film becomes a positive or negative factor in why it works.  The shifting relationships and characters in the film occasionally feel like reconstructions from a documentary rather than constructed for maximum effect; the story a mere recreation of actual events than a satisfying dramatic narrative.  On the plus side everyone has clear motivations and behaves utterly believably, their emotions and perspectives visibly evolving as the characters bounce off each other. The downside is the story ends up feeling slightly directionless, 'just a bunch of stuff that happens' rather than a conclusive narrative.

The Way, Way Back is so emotionally sincere that it makes me feel a little guilty attacking it.  Everyone in the film turns in a great performance, particularly Toni Colette and Steve Carell Colette is visibly torn between her love of her son and her love for Trent, and quickly you realise that she sees Trent as possibly her last chance for a committed, secure relationship. I've never been a particularly big fan of Steve Carell, but here he plays against type magnificently.  He's immediately dislikeable; perfectly pitching a domineering personality type whose jabs at Duncan are practically invisible to everyone else.  He's clearly the bad guy in this film, but on a distant level is (very) vaguely sympathetic, working on the assumption that though he's being a bit of a bastard right now, in the long run his cruelty will benefit Duncan.

Sam Rockwell is as entertaining to watch as always, though if you imagine what a typical Sam Rockwell character is then you've imagined Owen.  That's not really a criticism - I like stock Sam Rockwell - but he isn't exactly stretching himself for this.  Highlights of the rest of the supporting cast are AnnaSophia Robb, excellent in (the hugely under-rated) Bridge to Terabithia, and great here and Alison Janney adding a much needed spike of broad humour to the film as a frequently drunk, crude neighbour.

This is a perfectly fine film.  It creates a great sense of location, develops its characters and has its heart firmly in the right place.  But there's something vaguely missing at the centre of the film.  The water park job as therapy feels like a metaphor that never really goes anywhere, and though there's hints of a search for stable father figure, the film never quite gets the dramatic heft it seems to want.  You could do a lot worse than watching The Way, Way Back, but as the credits roll you'll feel a bit underwhelmed.  Pleasant, yet slight.

The Way, Way Back is on general release from 28 August

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