Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Way, Way Back [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Way, Way Back [2013] (written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rush) is a well acted if often horribly painful "indie piece" with some relatively well known actors about a 14 year old boy named Duncan (played by Liam James) a child of a recent divorce going through (one certainly hopes...) the worst summer of his life. 

The film begins with quiet, overwhelmed, sad Duncan with ultra-hunched shoulders sitting in the very back of a station wagon being driven by Trent (played by Steve Carell), his mother Pam (played by Toni Collette)'s new boyfriend, to his summer beach-front cottage presumably somewhere in the American North East.  Also in the car is Trent's later-teenage daughter Steph (played by Zoe Levin), a few significant years older than Duncan.

The scene feels like a drive to a sunny if utterly-fake-smiley Hell.  Keep in mind the scene's geography:  Who's "in the driver's seat?" (Trent).  Who's sitting next to him? (Duncan's still clearly shell-shocked from her recent divorce but making her first if still horribly wrong steps to "move on" mother).  Who's in next seat behind them?  (Trent's daughter Steph, who may not be particularly happy that her father's taking his new stressed-out if apparently grateful girlfriend along her dweebish, boneless and presently utterly unrelatable son Duncan with them to their annual summer vacation spot, BUT AT LEAST SHE KNOWS THE PLACE AND HAS HER FRIENDS THERE).  Finally, who's sitting way in the very back almost among the luggage?  (Sad, sullen Duncan, who at the beginning of the film could have been a candidate for a total break-down).  As they drive to Trent and his daughter's vacation spot, Trent tries to make conversation, but everything he says inevitably turns into a put-down.  Even he doesn't seem to have a clue of what he's getting everybody into.

So why is "Vacation in Hell" this happening?  My sense is because Trent is an "A-personality" and though he may not be utterly evil, he simply did not realize that Pam (who he apparently met when she was catering some random business function - a "regional company salesrep meeting" - that he was part of) and her son are simply NOT READY FOR THIS YET.

Pam's husband had abandoned her and Duncan about a year before for a much younger woman and was setting-up his new life way across the country in San Diego.  Yes, Pam resisted Trent's overtures for about 4-6 months after said "random business meeting" (where she served as a caterer) where they met.  However, Trent was apparently THE FIRST GUY that she had consented to go-out with following her traumatic divorce and now, a only few months after that first date, they were all going to HIS COTTAGE at HIS YEARLY VACATION SPOT with HIS DAUGHTER to be surrounded by HIS FRIENDS / ACQUAINTANCES and there'd be NO EASY ESCAPE for either HER or HER SON if ANYTHING "went wrong."

They arrive ...

The next act is exactly as one would expect given the setup above.  Trent and his daughter are welcomed by chatty long-time friends/acquaintances who don't treat Pam and Duncan badly, per se, they just don't know them, while they have years and years of history with Trent and Steff.  Steff runs off to the beach to be with her summer-time friends, Pam's inundated by nosy and randy moms, the most important of which are Betty (played by Alison Janney) and Joan (played by Amanda Peet), some divorced others married, pretty much all of whom regard Trent as something of a catch and wonder if Pam's really "in his league."  Duncan, poor Duncan, just wants to sink into the ground...

But Duncan soon finds a couple of saving graces.  First, he finds a bicycle.  Okay, it's little pink girls' bike, a bike for a 10 year old girl ... BUT IT'S A BIKE / A WAY OUT ... He can get "away" from the beach house row where he was previously trapped in a situation utterly outside his control to explore whatever else would be "in town."  And then there's Suzanna (played by AnnaSophia Robb) daughter of divorced neighbor ever-chatty Betty who's maybe a year older than Duncan and has already gone through her parents' divorce.  With time, she inevitably begins to be a friend.  But initially there is the awful but at least AVAILABLE bike that gives Duncan a way to "get away" from an otherwise overwhelming, bordering on unbearable, situation.

Where does Duncan go?  He rides his bike clear to the (other) edge of town where there's a "water park."  In generations past, the "water park" would have been a "carnival" ...  There among "the carnies" historically seen as "misfits of life" themselves (the most important of which in this film are played by Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolf and one of the film's writers/directors Nat Faxon himself) he finds some mentor figures and friends.  And THANKS TO THEM, life becomes bearable again.

Much still ensues ... but honestly, one can not but empathize with Duncan, his also overwhelmed mother Pam, and even perhaps, after some longer reflection (stupid as he was...) ... with Trent.  Portrayed here was really a nightmarish "vacation" ... and yet, hopefully EVERYONE grew a little bit as a result.

Wow.  So who to recommend this film to? ;-).  People with some distance from the situation (recent divorce) at hand.  Even though there are lot of comics in this film, this is _not_ exactly a funny movie.  And even though the film is rated PG-13 and in a strict sense meets the traditional criteria for such a rating, I wouldn't want to inflict this film on any teenager (except perhaps as an apology for past incomprehension of what they were going through during a family crisis).  This film is certainly well acted, but it is at times VERY, VERY, ALMOST UNBEARABLY SAD.

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