Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those indies that has all the pieces in place to be not just a terrific “little” movie, but also a surprise box office hit. It played well at festivals, critics love it, it has a very talented cast, it mixes humor with human emotion, and the co-directors and co-writers won an Oscar (with Alexander Payne) for writing the script to The Descendants. It even offers the often effective coming-of-age story line in regards to Duncan (played by Liam James) as a miserable 14 year old stuck at a beach house with him mom, her obnoxious boyfriend and his snobby daughter.
The movie has a touch of “The Wonder Years” (without the narrator), but it’s a bit more caustic thanks to Steve Carell, who plays Trent, the condescending and bullying boyfriend who has no redeeming qualities that we can see (other than an inherited beach house and a nice tan). It’s very unusual to see Carell in the “bad guy” role, but once you accept it, his lines and lies cut through each scene. Duncan’s mom is played by Toni Collette, and her character Pam is a divorced, insecure single mom trying to balance her own happiness with that of her teen-angst-filled son. Pam and Duncan are the outsiders in this beach community as we quickly learn when next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) barges across property lines (and personal space) with drink in hand and gossip flying.
Feeling further humiliated by his encounters with Betty’s cute daughter, Duncan finally gains a ray of hope thanks to Owen, the man-child manager of the Water Wizz park. Sam Rockwell plays Owen, and quickly becomes a mentor to him by offering him a job and what I call … Water Wizzdom. Of course, Duncan keeps the job a secret from the others in his life, and since they are mostly oblivious to his long absences, it proves again how self-centered the adults are in this little would-be family.
The well worn movie signs are all here … we recognize the characters and their struggles, in fact, we all know someone like each of the people that co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash present to us. We understand quickly that this is yet another coming-of-age tale with mostly clueless adults, and kids trying to cope on their own. Despite that, this one still mostly works. The writing and acting are such high quality that even though we are living in movie cliché-land, we still find ourselves caring about Duncan and Pam, laughing at Owen, and tossing tomatoes at Trent (Carell).
Special recognition to Sam Rockwell. Even though Duncan is the key character, it’s Rockwell’s Owen who recognizes that a little faith and encouragement goes a long way. Behind the facade of rapid-fire banter and laugh-inducing one-liners, Owen is coming to grips with a life of reality and shattered dreams. While never stooping to the typical Hollywood “win one for the Gipper” speech, Owen manages to instill a bit of confidence in Duncan … to the point where he refuses to let his mother pretend everything is OK with Trent.
AnnaSophia Robb plays the cute girl-next-door who recognizes potential in Duncan, but the filmmakers never allow this to turn into some ridiculous fairy tale. Instead we get characters who are each flawed, but real and recognizable. While all the typical pieces are present, there is enough crackle to the dialogue and quality acting to help this one rise above the usual muck. It’s a nice “little” alternative to the giant summer blockbusters. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have shown again that they have a gift for dialogue and now a talent for guiding actors. In this, their directorial debut, they prove that they also have skills as filmmakers. We should expect the next one to be even better!
**NOTE: you may think this looks like another Little Miss Sunshine, but it really flips the percentages in comedy vs drama
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: quirkiness and caustic dialogue mixed with some humorous and familiar coming-of-age moments are what you are looking for this summer movie season OR you want to see Steve Carell play something other than a nice guy
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are seeking light-hearted summer fluff … this one is filled with uncomfortable family drama
watch the trailer: