Sunday, September 1, 2013

Three Troubled Young Men

I recently watched three outstanding films about young men having difficulties in their lives.

The Way, Way Back starring Liam James; with Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell; directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash; (2013) - Official Facebook
Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan; with Melonie Diaz & Octavia Spencer; directed by Ryan Coogler; (2013) - Official Website
The Spectacular Now starring Miles Teller & Shailene Woodley; directed by James Ponsoldt; (2013) - Official Webiste

I saw the The Way, Way Back at the Landmark Guild in Menlo Park, Fruitvale Station at the 4 Star and The Spectacular Now at the UA Stonestown.

All three of these films are associated with the San Francisco Film Society.  The Way, Way Back & The Spectacular Now screened at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival.  Fruitvale Station (at one point, wasn't the title simply Fruitvale?) was awarded $200,000 by SFFS and KRF (Kenneth Rainin Foundation) for production and post-production expenses.


The Way, Way Back is the gentlest of the three.  Liam James is 14 year old Duncan.  His mother Pam (Toni Collette) is recently divorced and has a new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell).  Trent is a piece of work.  He actively alienates and bullies Duncan while trying to isolate Pam or drive a wedge between mother and son.  Pam appears desperate to pair up; much to the disbelief of Duncan and the audience.  Trent, Pam, Duncan & Trent's daughter Steph spend the summer at a beach house in Cape Cod.  How can they afford to take the entire summer off?  I don't know.  If I recall correctly, Pam is caterer.  I'm not sure what Trent does.  He or his family owns a primo beach house within walking distance of the ocean or maybe the bay side.  I don't think they specified the body of water.

Duncan is miserable.  His parents are divorced, he has no contact with his father, he hates Trent, he is shy and awkward and he has a hard time making friends.  He finds a girl's bicycle in the garage and it is lifeline to freedom.  He explores the town and eventually falls in with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager (maybe owner) of Water Wizz, the local water park.  Why an ocean-side community would need or support a water park is confounding but I ignored a lot of these illogical plot points.  Eventually getting a job at Water Wizz, Duncan finally finds acceptance and friendship among the staff as well as a father figure in the laid back, under-ambitious Owen.  In addition, Duncan is making inroads with the pretty girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

Life is on the upswing for Duncan until Trent intervenes again.  In addition to the failings I listed above, Trent also cheats on Pam with Amanda Peet's character.  As an aside, I have always found her terribly sexy.  Although Duncan overhears their conversation and could reveal the affair, he keeps his mouth shut for his mother's sake.  It isn't until his affair become undeniable to Pam that Duncan confronts his mother very publicly at a BBQ.

Rather than breaking up with Trent, Pam decides to give it another shot which seemingly signifies her choice of Trent over Duncan.  They hastily leave town without giving Duncan time to say goodbye at Water Wizz (he's kept his job there a secret).  At a gas stop across the street, Duncan jumps from the car to run to Water Wizz and bid his farewells.  When Trent, Pam and Steph follow him, they discover his secret life.  Duncan was employee of the month so his photo is on the wall and Owen indirectly confronts Trent over his behavior towards Duncan.  On the drive home, the pecking order is re-established as it was at the beginning of the film on the rid to Cape Code:  Trent driving the car, Pam in the passenger seat, Steph laid out on the backseat and Duncan in rear-facing back seat with the luggage.  The film ends on an upbeat note as Pam reasserts her independence by climbing back to sit with Duncan despite Trent's protests.

The Way, Way Back has a lot of good things going for it.  Although Liam James gets most of the screen time, much like his character, his performance fades into the background.  He delivers a fine performance going from depressed and confused young man to finding some measure of happiness.  His scenes with Carrell and Rockwell are the most memorable.  That's probably because Carrell & Rockwell got the best roles.

Carrell always does well as the jerk but he amps it up for this film.  He's a grown man bullying his girlfriend's teenage son while cheating on said girlfriend.  Carrell plays it straight to so his character is an A#1 A-hole.  At the other end of the spectrum is Rockwell whose character by most definitions is a loser.  Underachieving and not able to commit his girlfriend (Maya Rudolph), Owen doesn't seem to be much of a role model.  However, Rockwell gets one scene to allude to his backstory which gives his character some much needed depth.  Amiable if not juvenile, Owen hints at a strength of character which isn't necessarily present in the film.  Rockwell does a great job fleshing out the bare-boned character.

Collette's character is harder to empathize with but she is game for the part which is absolutely dull compared to say Allison Janney's part as the boozy next door neighbor or the aforementioned Amanda Peet role.

The Way, Way Back was funny and poignant without being overly mawkish. I really enjoyed this film.


Fruitvale Station tells the semi-fictionalized story of the last day of Oscar Grant's life.  I'm not sure how well known the Oscar Grant shooting is outside of the Bay Area.  My father, who lives in Nevada, was unfamiliar with the case.  I get the sense Oscar Grant was no Trayvon Martin in terms of national media coverage.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant as a complex young man.  The film is set on December 31, 2008.  Grant has a young daughter and live-in girlfriend (Melonie Diaz).  What he doesn't have is a job.  He's lost his job at the local grocery store and he is too embarrassed or afraid to tell his girlfriend or mother (Octavia Spencer).  He has reason to be afraid.  They are both tired of his behavior which includes multiple felony convictions and cheating on his girlfriend.  As portrayed in the film, Grant seems like a young man capable of much more if he could get himself unstuck.  He is trying to as evidenced by him emptying his rather sizable marijuana stash into the San Francisco Bay rather than selling it to someone.

Grant's fateful evening begins with a New Year's Eve dinner at his mother's house.  His girlfriend wants to go to the City.  She calls it Frisco which doesn't quite ring true.  Regardless, Grant's mother suggests they take BART instead of driving.  BART had around-the-clock service that evening.  Grant and a group of his friend's take her advice.  In the film, it is strongly implied Grant was a confidential informant or turned state's evidence while in prison although I think the film set the scenes in county lockup.  While on the BART train back home, Grant encounters someone he knew in prison and a fight ensues.  The train is stopped and the BART police come through pulling people off the train with Grant being one of the men detained.

An overly aggressive cop (Kevin Durand) escalates the matter with tactics that were bordered on police brutality.  Eventually, additional cops arrive including Officer Ingram who eventually shoot Grant in the back while police were trying to handcuff him.

The fact that the police officers' characters had different names than their real-life counterparts indicates there was some fear of a lawsuit over their depiction in the film.  Interestingly enough, I thought the film portrayed Grant's action as making him culpable in his own death.  In the film, Grant and others are told to sit on the platform with their backs to the wall.  Grant repeatedly gets up to argue with police that he should not be arrested.  Within the context of the film, Grant was desperate to avoid arrest as it was hinted that Grant was down to his last chance in terms of the love and support from his family as well as his own self-respect.  That explains the reason Grant kept getting up to argue with the officer.  However, it also gives a plausible explanation as to the officer's increasing aggressiveness and the chaos which Ingram/Mehserle encounters.

Filmed mostly in Oakland with the BART tracks and trains frequently in the background, Fruitvale Station does a masterful job in establishing Grant's character.  I take pains to recognize that Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station is fictional character.  He is based on a real person but I have no doubt artistic license was taken.  Fruitvale Station has an ace in the hole.  Anyone casually familiar with the incident knows Grant has to be shot to death by the end.  So everything Grant does in the film is tinged with fatalism from the audience's perspective and we project this onto Grant and his actions and words.  This purely a cinematic feeling; Grant certainly didn't know he was going to be shot to death that evening.

Whatever can be said about Oscar Grant (the character) is not necessarily applicable to Oscar Grant (the man).  Grant's tragedy is heightened by these cinematic techniques and skillfully so by director Ryan Coogler.  I won't go so far as to say Grant is a cipher for each audience member's attitude towards the actual incident and the associated societal problems, but Jordan's performance does not seem particularly memorable as I write this one week after seeing the film.  The film is quite memorable although I will admit that Bay Area residents may find it more memorable that others.  However, the performances do not stand out as they typically do in memorable films.  Kevin Durand's character is most memorable for me despite having very little screen time.  Melonie Diaz has built up quite an impressive indie film career and her performance in Fruitvale Station serves as an effective counterweight to Grant's less desirable tendencies.


The Spectacular Now has an impressive cast.  Miles Teller (who looks a lot like a young John Cusack) has the lead role but it's my first time seeing him.  Shailene Woodley plays his girlfriend, Brie Larson is his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Jason Leigh is his mother, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is his sister & Kyle Chandler is his father.

Teller plays Sutter Keely, a high school senior always up for a good time.  That might be partially due to the fact that he is always sipping on large cup of soda spiked with hard liquor.  Sutter is a barely functioning alcohol.  He thinks he is fooling people but he isn't fooling anyone.  His girlfriend Cassidy (Larson) breaks up with him because she senses he isn't going anywhere.  This sends Sutter, who is still in love with Cassidy, on a downward spiral.  He wakes up from a drunken binge on the lawn of Aimee (Woodley), a shy and relatively sheltered classmate of Sutter.  Having never given Aimee a second look, Sutter feels an attraction to her based on something more deep than his usual superficial interactions.

Sutter & Aimee tentatively for a couple although throughout the film there is a sense that Sutter will drop Aimee for Cassidy at the first opportunity.  Fortunately, the film doesn't go down that well worn cinematic.  Instead, Cassidy who still has feelings for Sutter, never takes him despite a close call.  That makes for a much better film because Sutter and Aimee have much in common.  Both are being raised by their mothers and the absence of their fathers have deeply affected them.  It is the root cause of Sutter's alcoholism and Aimee's withdrawn nature.

Sutter is a great character.  He is a drunk and he is toxic.  In a very telling scene, he gives Aimee an alcohol flask as a present.  By the end of the film, Aimee is constantly sipping from her flask in order to keep up with him.  However, Sutter knows he is toxic as his "friends" and enemies keep telling him.  Sutter is a good guy if he could get off the booze.  Aimee has been overlooked by boys her entire life and in a co-dependent relationship with her mother.  Shown some interest by Sutter, she think he'll leave her for Cassidy as well.  Unbeknownst to her, Cassidy has spurned him so she interprets his continued presence as devotion and love.  She is more than willing to follow him down whatever alcohol infused path he is going.

What makes The Spectacular Now spectacular is that it treads a lot of gray areas.  Sutter may be turning Aimee into an alcoholic but he also encourages her to confront her mother and move away to college.  Sutter is pulling Aimee up as much as he is dragging her down.

The film's dénouement begins when Sutter reluctantly tracks down his long absent father.  His mother has long refused to tell Sutter where his father is.  Sutter has pieced together enough of his father's life to be concerned that he is turning into father.  Sutter & Aimee have an agreement - she would confront her mother and assert her independence while Sutter would insist his mother allow him to see his father.  His mother is resolute in her refusal but Sutter goes behind her back and gets his phone number from his older sister.  When he and Aimee meet him, they find a man more pathetic than they or the audience can imagine.  That is a great scene with Kyle Chandler in a bar where he reveals his shortcomings as a human.

From that point, Sutter pushes Aimee away.  In his mind, he is doing it to protect her and at some level, I think she even agrees.  However, Aimee feels the need to save Sutter just as he has "saved" her.  I won't give away the ending because it is inconclusive from the look on Aimee face which way she will choose.

Miles Teller gives a great performance in a great role.  The impressive supporting cast give equally impressive performances.  The Spectacular Now is a bit of a bait and switch.  It starts off as if it will be a teen comedy but gradually establishes itself as a drama.  By the end, I realized the target were not teenagers or even twentysomethings but an older demographic whose life experiences allow them to recognize the characters and their likely outcomes.

The Spectacular Now is pretty dark film which highlights the impact a father's absence can have on his children.  That was a common theme throughout all three films mentioned in this post.

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