Coming of age movies have never been my favourite. You’ll have gleaned that from my seriously underwhelmed review of Mud (2012), a film many others loved. A lot of the same kinds of elements are in place here, but within a comedic framework (rather than Southern gothic), and I have a lot of the same qualms.
If the central character’s arc is familiar — and Liam James plays the browbeaten and sullen teenager Duncan perfectly well — then it’s in the supporting performances where this film is made. Allison Janney is always a delight whenever she appears in any film or TV show, and she’s thankfully on screen for a reasonable amount of time. After a long, awkward opening scene in the car while driving to the beach, in which Steve Carell’s stepdad Trent (or rather, his eyes in a rearview mirror) belittle Duncan as the rest of the family sleeps, Janney’s Betty immediately enlivens things with her embarrassingly drunken mother in the neighbouring Cape Cod beach house.
The main plotline, though, is of Duncan slowly coming to feel comfortable with himself — and with Betty’s curious daughter Susanna (Annasophia Robb) — via a series of small family humiliations. He’s also aided by the discovery of a retro water-based themepark, which is presumably a nostalgic figment in the memories of director-writer team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the latter of whom grew up in a Massachusetts seaside community. The themepark becomes like a separate world away from his family and those he knows, where he can start to become the person he’s never been allowed to be under the eye of his hated stepfather. It also allows for the introduction of a range of more permissive and accepting characters, including Sam Rockwell (always a wonderfully enjoyable screen presence) as the overly relaxed park manager Owen, and his put-upon girlfriend Caitlyn (SNL alumna Maya Rudolph), not to mention the director-writer team in supporting roles.
It’s also the site of some of the more dubious elements of the film’s humour, for most of these characters are themselves in need of growing up, and try to inculcate in Duncan some of their borderline-creepy dudebro behaviour — not least in an unnecessary scene ogling attractive teenage girls on the waterslide. Maybe the nostalgic past is not always the safest place, after all.
Nevertheless, despite the sullen central character, the earnest sermonising of the denouement (an ever-present hazard of the genre) and the fetishising of the 80s and all its trappings, there are enough enjoyable central performances to make this film likeable and diverting. The relationship between Duncan and his mother Pam (Toni Collette, making a welcome reappearance after too long away from mainstream cinema) is understated and touching. There’s a lovely scene in which Duncan moodily stalks off from a gathering of adult friends while Pam, remaining, exhibits signs of similar social awkwardness, if expressed in a rather less adolescent way. It’s a little the way I feel around some of these characters, but in the dark of the cinema I at least don’t have to nod and smile when the film wavers. Luckily, for the most part, it remains sunny and likeable.
Directors/Writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Steve Carell; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 1 September 2013.