Laggies (aka Say When, 2014)

Sometimes, even though a film isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually make much of an effort to see, you read reviews of it that just seem grossly unfair (hello, The Guardian), and it makes you feel more warmly disposed. It helps that I’ve found Keira Knightley more likeable as an actor in recent years, while Sam Rockwell has always been dependable. Add to that my resolution to see more films by woman directors, and I felt I had to catch this in its brief window of cinema release. I’m glad I did. The American title (not retained for the UK release) is rather idiosyncratic, but captures the sense of the central characters lagging behind their peers. Chiefly this is Knightley’s character Megan, in her late-20s but lacking motivation, with no sense of what she should be doing and with cold feet about her relationship, who hides out at teenager Annika’s home (Moretz). If the central character were male, this kind of regressive ingenuousness would no doubt be grating, but actually I found the friendship between Megan and Annika rather sweet. At a certain level, yes, the film is hardly original, and so many of its details suggest screenwriterly contrivance, and yet I’m willing to forgive all that, because it’s a likeable film which avoids relying on humiliation and pratfalls for its comedy, but rather focuses on likeable people grappling with real, if familiar, issues in an identifiable way.

Laggies film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writer Andrea Seigel; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.

The Way, Way Back (2013)

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.