Monday, August 26, 2013

The Case for Both Ways

The Way Way Back is a film from the makers of Little Miss Sunshine, and the style and some of the cast (Toni Collette and Steve Carrell) make it all seem very familiar.  It’s all very “small” in a family-oriented way, with an awkward teenager who doesn’t quite get on with anyone around him, and there’s an easy sense of humour that surrounds the sadness and discontent at the heart of the movie. 

The funny side of things mostly takes place in a water park, where Duncan (the grumpy teen played by Liam James) meets and eventually works for his mentor-slash-saviour, Owen, played with boisterous slacker good-naturedness by Sam Rockwell (is he always awesome?) and with some adults who are all fairly laid back (except for the stunning Maya Rudolph, and I was so disappointed that her character Caitlin and Owen did not hook up, though perhaps that was the point) and seem quite happy to have a 14 year old hanging around with them all the time.  As much fun as this is, it’s also the most contrived bit of the film.  The way Duncan and Owen meet and bond is all a bit awkward and unnatural (it doesn’t quite have paedophilic air about it, quite) and reeks of misunderstood teen wish fulfilment, and so it doesn’t always work (though Rockwell just has to be let loose to talk random rubbish to entertain).

The real “grounded” part of the film takes place back at home, where Duncan and his Mom, Pam (Collette), and making a go at a summer holiday with Mom’s new boyfriend Trent (Carrell) and his daughter, though things hit a rough patch when the neighbours (Allison Janney in all her faux-drunk, hyper critical and horny glory steals every scene she is in as Betty; Amanda Peet and Rob Coddry are a strangely unconvincing couple) end up spending every waking moment with them too.   

Janney’s daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), plays a strange (and again unconvincing) bridge between Duncan’s two summer worlds.  She is in a bad place due to the divorce of her parents (I think) and so is rejecting her friends (including Carrell’s daughter, a role that kind of just exists to make things awkward at the start of the film and then is kind of forgotten) and being generally grumpy, but is somehow drawn to the uncommunicative Duncan and… well, not much happens there.

I found it an easy mix of two (perhaps three) worlds. First off, there is the very down to earth family life, the serious film component, acted magnificently and brimming with tension and drama and the real driving force behind the film.  Then there is the water world theme park, a wonderfully colourful and funny place that has no real driving story behind it and which Duncan inhabits by a set of coincidences so improbable as to be fantastical.  Finally, there is the teenage world of awkward in between-ness, where Duncan is kind of expected to hang out with Betty’s son Peter, or perhaps with Trent’s daughter or her friends… but by escaping in to the other two, this world is never particularly well developed. 

As the link between all the worlds, Duncan is well played by James, though some of his development through the film is just painful (like the sudden and mysterious appearance of an even, all over tan).  He obviously has the awkward but not repulsive look the writers wanted, and handles the family drama impressively well, though when it comes to the bonding with Rockwell’s character, even he has a hard time convincing me of that.

Overall then, the film doesn’t quite ring true.  It is funny in parts, serious in parts, implausible in quite a few moments too, and there seem to be a lot of extraneous and irrelevant characters and plot points that add nothing to the film, and perhaps subtract.  I suppose they are meant to paint some of the dimensions of the world in which Duncan finds himself, but it just adds to length rather than breadth.

Still, there are lots of amazing performances throughout (can anyone really cry like Collette?) and despite its many flaws, none of them make the film bad – they just make it very contrived and forgettable.

Verdict: The Way Way Back feels like a whole lot of different ideas from different kidult dramadies mushed together into something not particularly convincing.  Luckily the cast is impressive and likeable enough to bring the characters to life and to bring humour and tragedy to the scenes that need them, but these are beacons of quality in amongst a foggy sea of mediocrity.  6.5 water wings out of 10.

No comments: