Sunday, December 15, 2013

Movies: The Way Way Back ('Best of 2013' List)

The Way Way Back opens with a question addressed to quiet, introverted, 14-year-old Duncan (played by Liam James), posed by his divorced mother's new-ish boyfriend, Trent (played by Steve Carrell), while they're on the drive to a summer vacation beach house, and most of the occupants of the car are asleep.

The question: "On a scale of one to ten, what do you think you are?", with the follow-up, "I'm asking you how you see yourself". When Duncan half-heartedly gives a middling response, Trent opines: "I think you're a three".

Thus the stage is set for this unconventional coming-of-age story, which is funny and prickly and honest about how it sometimes sucks to be a teenager, and how it sometimes also sucks to be a divorced middle-aged mom, and how you have to figure out what's actually important in life in order to reduce the suckage. If "coming-of-age" stories normally make your teeth ache (as they often do mine, what with their typically being saccharine, clich├ęd crapfests), don't worry, this film respects your intelligence more than that.

Once at the beach house, we meet next door neighbours: hippie-cougar Betty (played by Allison Janney, clearly having a blast in the role), and her daughter Susanna (played by Anna Sophia Robb), who seems a little more grounded than her mom. The developing friendship between Duncan and Susanna is subtle, organic, and is one of the film's many strengths. In fact, all of the male-female relationships in the film, excepting those of Trent's, are shown to be wonderful, complex things (Trent's are complex, but they clearly aren't wonderful except possibly in the short-term, especially for the women).

Duncan finds a respite from his problems when during his explorations of the town he comes across the local water-park and its senior employee Owen (played by Sam Rockwell, who always gives terrific performances, seriously), who becomes Duncan's friend and roundabout mentor. Owen's relationship with his supervisor Caitlin (played by Maya Rudolph) is a realistic romantic portrayal: he knows he's lucky to have her, she has a higher opinion of him than he probably has of himself, and she respects him and herself enough not to put up with his puckish bullshit when it occurs.

For me, the surprise here is Carrell, who plays a pretty nuanced villain. "Villain" is probably too melodramatic a phrase for the realism of the character -- perhaps it's better to say "asshole". Trent has picked this vacation house because it's familiar old haunt for him, but the surrounding town is also a place where, in his circles, he is viewed both as the life-of-the-party and also the alpha-male (such as it is), and clearly he enjoys his status there (perhaps because it reflects his own opinion of himself). Carrell uses his own natural likeability and charm in the part, but for Trent it's a mercenary pursuit, in that he uses that charisma as a tool to get what he wants out of a given situation. Trent's often casually cruel to those around him, even those he professes to care about. There's even a moment later in the film where Trent loses patience when provoked, and a more threatening person emerges. Given all that, there are other moments where Trent is obviously trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, it's that his approach is all wrong, and that unfortunately for him it's probably too late to change who he is. It's unlike anything I've seen from Carrell in the past, and he handles the performance expertly.

As Duncan's mom Pam, Toni Collette is also superb, in the role of a woman who is brittle but not broken, and who as perfomed by Collete is sympathetic, not pathetic. We see how Pam could find herself with Trent, and how she wants to make it work considering her past failures, but we also see her become more and more aware of her situation as it actually is, rather than what she'd like it to be, which is difficult thing to portray and a tribute to Colette's skills as an actress that she does so seamlessly.

Other best bits:
  • The aforementioned opening scene between James and Carrell. The writing/acting/directing trifecta of opening scenes - it's like a master class of all three.
  • The writing and direction by writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (not to say that their previous screenwriting effort, The Descendants, was bad, I just found this work to be so much more satisfying, perhaps because they also directed this time).
  • The acting by all parties (not mentioned previously, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet in their roles as Trent's old friends)

"On a scale of one to ten...". I think you already know what I think.

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