“The Way, Way Back” (PG-13) *****
This is a perfect movie in many ways, and certainly perfect for this season because it’s about summer — a summer when character emerges from cliché, when adulthood emerges from childhood and where grown-ups are forced to realize that they are jerks or worse.
The film starts with 14-year-old Duncan sitting in the way, way back of a cherry station wagon owned by his mother’s boyfriend, Trent (played by Steve Carell). Duncan (Liam James) and his mother, Pam (Toni Collette) are on their way to a summer on the Cape along with the boyfriend and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). They move into a cottage surrounded by Trent’s friends from his first marriage. They include a hopelessly inadequate and somewhat alcoholic Betty (Allison Janney); her daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb); and younger brother, Peter (River Alexander).
Also among Trent’s closest friends are Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet). Joan and Trent have a dalliance that is one of the crucial turning points in the film. While the rest can merely witness the destruction of a relationship, Pam comes apart, recognizing a pattern she has lived through before. As she says sadly to a furious Duncan, “We do things to protect ourselves because we’re scared.”
But the central relationships in this marvelous film are Duncan’s. First, his painfully shy attempts at a relationship with the “older woman,” Susanna, are absolutely winning. She is willing to be his friend but nothing beyond that. Duncan is so naïve that he doesn’t even see the rejection coming, but we are not surprised even though our hearts ache for Duncan.
The transcendent relationship in the story is between Owen (Sam Rockwell) and Duncan. Owen is an older guy, a happy-go-lucky assistant manager of a water park. Wisecracking, fibbing, kidding and relentless in his attempts to loosen up the tense Duncan, Owen never even threatens to become a molesting pervert as some might have made him. His friend Roddy (Ned Faxon) aids and abets the two by being another nice guy. The whole Water Wizz staff, including Lewis (Jim Rash) and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) as a complex pool manager with a past with Owen, is sterling and funny and kind and welcoming to Duncan, who begins to climb out of the way, way back to join society.
Trent’s friends leave much to be desired — it is the Water Wizz staff and customers who allow Duncan, dubbed “Pop ‘n Lock” when he becomes a staff member, to find adulthood with kindness while his mother and friends do their best to impress upon him by example how awful adult life is. The script is masterful, the acting impeccable and every chance this movie has to turn into a big “coming of age” banality is skillfully avoided. The heartbreak is well-earned, and the triumphs are as well, as the film moves to a satisfactory and honest ending with Duncan still in the way, way back but with a different and elevated sense of self and his place in the world.
Rewarding, charming, loving and emotionally vibrant, this is a film not to miss. If you need any more bona fides for it, consider the fact that it was written by Faxon and Rash who, with Alexander Payne, won an Oscar for “The Descendants” in 2012. Don’t miss this one if you like film at all.
“Blue Jasmine” (PG-13) *****
Another sterling success, this film is written by Woody Allen, who also directs.
Let’s be up front: Cate Blanchett should sew up an Oscar for her riveting performance of the slow deterioration of the title character, who may actually be named Jeanette. Jasmine, you see, is living in a narrowing world of lies, deceit, shock, drugs (“My Xanax didn’t kick in”) and self-deceit. Whether all her problems were of long standing or were the result of the trauma of her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) infidelities, perfidy, dirty dealing and eventual suicide is not clear, but that is one of the prime reasons that Blanchett’s performance is so stunning.
For the most part she hides secrets very well. From the pinnacle of New York high society and the Hamptons, a relatively destitute Jasmine has come to San Francisco to live with her estranged and lower class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger has a boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who is, if anything, even lower class than Ginger. Appalled at how they live, Jasmine lobbies for Ginger to dump Chili and find somebody more elevated. At a party Jasmine meets a wannabe-senator, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who hustles her pretty heavily, and a rosy ending is assured, especially since Ginger has found the man of her dreams in a sound engineer named Al (Louis C.K.).