The Way Way Back opens in Berlin on December 5.
It’s not that often that Toni Collette gets the conventional happy ending. What she gets is obsession and friendship (Muriel’s Wedding), the strange son (About a Boy) and spunky daughter (Little Miss Sunshine) and generally dysfunctional families (most of the above plus In her Shoes). Films such as these deal in the kind of social contract that involves imperfect relationships rather than visionary individuality. Most, for example, would fail the Bechdel gender bias test that rates films based on whether or not they feature two women talking about something other than men. But maybe it’s because of this that the characters embodied by Collette can also feel uncomfortably real. They do worry, too much, about men: often compromising themselves rather than their relationships.
Collette’s role in the The Way Way Back is an interesting variant on compromise. This could be because the movie starts, unusually, at a point where many of her earlier films end: with the small victory that comes with the realisation and acceptance of flawed arrangements. While Pam (Collette) sleeps in the car driven by smug new boyfriend Trent (Carell) as he ferries her, her 14-year-old son Duncan (James) and Trent’s own, slightly older, daughter-bitch to his beach house, Trent subjects Duncan to a pretty nasty episode of character assassination. Watching her sleep whilst her son is given the third degree, it becomes clear, just from looking at her face, that Pam is tired: of thinking about relationships and calculating the happiness trade-off between herself and her child. She’s tuning out. And Collette makes it look supremely natural.
Barely a word’s been spoken, yet everything is evident. As the screenplay by Jim Nash and Nat Faxon (who scripted The Descendants and debut here as directors) progresses through a summer of largely unvoiced discontents, the cruise control mode of tackling reality reveals itself as an adult stock-in-trade for deflecting unwelcome truths. Duncan slowly comes out of his shell, acquiring contours under the (slightly overwrought) tutelage of a local water park attendant (Rockwell) and the friendship of the neighbour’s daughter. The supposedly mature component (including Janney, also verging on the stereotypical as a raunchy neighbour) on the other hand, disport themselves like teenagers, with liquor, the odd joint and some nocturnal groping. And although the movie is about Duncan’s coming of age, it’s Collette’s presentation of re-discovered responsibility that provides a template: not only for lost adults but ultimately, and more importantly, for her son. This compromise is dead. Temporarily. Long live all future compromises. And long may Collette continue to embody – and question – them.
The Way Way Back | Directed by Jim Nash and Nat Faxon (USA 2013) with Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Allison Janney, Liam James, Sam Rockwell. Starts December 5
Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.