Sunday, November 10, 2013


 When I was a teenager I used to have nightmares about nuclear attacks. In the dream, I'd wake up in the morning and look out my window to see that my neighborhood had been reduced to rubble, with nothing but scorched earth all around my home. Of course, there was no explanation of how my family's place survived and the rest of the town was burned to a crisp. Still, nuclear fears haunted me for several years, and there was nothing Jackson Browne and his No Nukes concerts could do to stop them. The world, I was convinced, would end in my lifetime because of a nuclear bomb.  
While watching Kevin MacDonald's  How I Live Now, a film about British youngsters and their American cousin trying to make the best of a nuclear situation, I couldn't help but think that my dream had been much more horrifying. I put this down to my dream being from an American point of view, where it's utter devastation or nothing. The film, a reasonably good one, is based on London- writer Meg Rosoff's novel. The Brits, having been through two wars, appear to interpret nuclear disasters as just something  to get through, another inconvenience they'll survive with a stiff upper lip. At the end, two survivors are eating beans in the dark when the lights suddenly come back on, as if the whole thing had just been a case of bad weather.
Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is the American sent to England to live with her cousins, a motley bunch of teens who seem to look after themselves with little adult supervision in a house full of dirty dishes and animals, including a goat with a homemade horn to look like a unicorn. Daisy, being a modern American girl, is an angry, neurotic, germaphobe who fears everything from animals to cheese; the cousins can barely contain their disappointment that she's such a snot. 
She seems to have a thing for Eddie (George MacKay) the oldest of the cousins.  He's the sort of young buck that girls in fiction always love - a man of few words (and of few shirts), and he's good with falcons; you know the type. Eddie and Daisy fall in love and have sex in a barn, and suddenly our girl Daisy is just the sweetest thing you can imagine. One roll in the hay with a falconer has turned her from being a typical American teen bitch into Mary Poppins.

But even as this dreary romantic saga plays out, there is something insidious brewing: military planes are constantly flying overhead, menacing in their speed and cold power; Daisy's aunt, on the way to Geneva for mysterious reasons, is overheard on the phone saying that something is bound to happen in a few days; Daisy's littlest cousin, Piper, mentions that World War III is coming. The pay off comes in the film's best scene, when a nuclear attack on London causes the trees to bend and the wind to howl during one of Daisy and Eddy's idyllic picnics. "It's snowing," says little Piper, as ominous flakes of dust flutter to the ground. 
Within seconds the film whiplashes into its next act, as British soldiers raid the family home and separate the boys from the girls. Daisy and Eddie vow to look for each other when things settle down, with Eddie instructing Daisy to find her way back home, no matter what. The rest of the film involves Daisy and Piper on some sort of work farm, making their escape, and then walking for several miles to get back home, where Daisy is convinced Eddie will be waiting. There are several obstacles along the way, including Piper's bleeding feet, contaminated water, and the occasional ruffian they encounter on the way. Like Ray Milland in Panic in Year Zero, the original nuclear survival movie, Daisy isn't afraid to use a gun to defend herself.

MacDonald is an interesting director. He likes closeups of birds and dewy grass. The war torn English countryside (filmed in Wales, so I've heard) is convincingly turned into a kind of bucolic death camp, with piles of bodies neatly stacked where foxes can rummage through the corpses, looking for snacks. He's a very stylish director, and many of the scenes are truly beautiful. But too much of the film is shown through a teenaged looking glass. Adults are brutal; kids are full of soul. And what happened to Daisy's aunt who went to Geneva? What about the men Daisy shoots? Are there no consequences? And since when is screwing your cousin the gateway to true romance, anyway? (Did the author make Daisy an American so the cousins would seem less "cousinly," hence a little romp in the barn would seem less unsavory?)
On an intellectual level, I understand that the separation and reunion of Daisy and Eddie was supposed to be moving. But their romance bloomed so quickly, that I didn't have time to develop any feelings about these two.  Saoirse Ronan gives a nice performance as Daisy, even appearing to become more gaunt as the movie progresses, and I liked how she had to mature and take responsibility to look after Piper. She's also convincing as a young girl in love, even if she's merely "in love with love," as the old song goes. I just never believed in the love story part of the film.  Eddie was too much of a cardboard figure, not given much to do but smile and look earnest. Maybe that's all 16-year-old Daisy needs, but I needed a little more.
The real star of the show is Harley Bird as Piper. She shows more love when hugging a dog than Daisy and Eddie can show with all of their mooning and weeping. When Daisy and Piper return home, one of the family's old dogs comes limping out of the barn to greet them. Piper's reaction is so simple and heartfelt that I almost wept. Piper is someone I'd gladly share a can of beans with at the end of the world.

The coming of age tale is irresistible, whether played out in the middle of a nuclear disaster or not. As the characters of The Way Way Back are rolled out for us, it looks like we're onto something. We meet Duncan (Liam James), an awkward, sadsack of a boy; his mother Pam (Toni Collette); and her pushy boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell).  They are on the way to Trent's summer home to spend some time together "as a family," which Trent thinks is important. Trent also happens to be a ballbuster, and is constantly picking on Duncan for one thing or another, as step-fathers in movies always seem to do. 

Once at the summer house, we meet Trent's brassy neighbor Betty (the always lovely and delightful Allison Janney) and her wall-eyed son Peter (River Alexander). Betty drinks a lot and laughs like a drunken horse. There are tensions in the air, so Duncan finds his way to the local water park where he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a wise ass who hires him to work around the park and helps him grow up a little.

Duncan is at a tough age. He's 14, too young to leave home, but bright enough to notice that adults aren't all they're cracked up to be -- he sees nothing but failed marriages and adults who act like giggling fools at the sight of a drink or a joint. The summer resort, as one of the local kids tells him, "is like spring break for grown ups." It doesn't help that Trent undermines Duncan's every move. This man, who may one day be his step-father, actually asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one through 10. When Duncan shrugs and says "six," Trent responds, "I'd say you were a three." It's no wonder Duncan finds solace at the water park.

Rockwell works like hell to make an interesting character of Owen, the water slide worker, but there's not much to him besides a lot of bad jokes and not so witty patter. Duncan is supposed to idolize this guy, but it's unlikely that a 14-year-old would see Owen as anything but a weirdo who talks too much. Instead, in the film's unlikeliest twist, Duncan goes to work for Owen and within days is acting like him. The kid appears to magically come out of his shell, earns a new nickname, and becomes the sweetheart of the water park. A more realistic approach would've seen Duncan trying to meet kids his own age. As far as I can remember, kids don't particularly like adults, especially middle-aged guys who work at water parks.

As Duncan, Liam James does his best with an overwrought script. Collette and Janney are always good, and play roles here they could do in their sleep. The film sputters to a predictable finish, with Duncan showing some nerve, and his mother learning that Trent is a fool. Of course, we knew that from the beginning, so the climax doesn't quite have the kick it could have had.

The film was co-written and co-directed by  Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, two engaging fellows who have enjoyed long careers as actors in both films and television, and each have small roles here as water park workers. Perhaps due to their acting backgrounds, they've filled the movie with "actorish" moments, including lots of hugs and meaningful pauses, and occasional outbursts, just so the whole cast gets to feel like they're showcasing their talents. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels a little like watching actors trying to impress each other in scene study classes.  I almost wish there'd been a movie about Janney and her cross-eyed son. Their scenes together were funny, and River Alexander busts out some of the best moves in the film.

As it is, The Way Way Back isn't bad. There are some good performances from some actors I like, and one can never go wrong with theme park scenery. Best of all is Carell, who is very convincing as a shitheel step-father to be. When he addresses Duncan as "buddy," he makes your skin crawl. Looking sunburned and unshaven, this is a Carell we haven't seen before. If the comedy thing dries up for him, he could have a post comic career playing pricks.

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