This summer movie season has felt relentlessly grim. Almost every big budget movie currently or recently in theaters has featured an end-of-the-world scenario or some other type of epic massacre. Even comedies like The Heat and This Is the End featured several gun deaths and an apocalypse, respectively. Which is why going to see The Way, Way Back this weekend was such a relief.
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's delightful movie, about a young boy coming of age with the help of some oddball water park employees, is a nice reminder that the summer doesn't have to be all 9/11 imagery and mass killing. There's plenty of smaller, less gruesome fare coming our way in the next two months.
Though summer is meant to be the time of popcorn fare at the movie theaters, the biggest summer blockbusters this year have tended to mix popcorn entertainment with sheer horror. The casual destruction Man of Steel wreaked was mind-boggling, especially when weighed against real-life disasters. Star Trek Into Darkness destroyed half of San Francisco, an aircraft slamming into a building no less. World War Z put zombies into a real-life, globe-annihilating context. The Lone Ranger featured not one but two massacres of entire tribes of Native Americans. As our Richard Lawson wrote about this season's ultra-violence: "It's almost as if filmmakers don't trust audiences to appreciate the gravity of a situation unless there's a heap of implied carnage to illustrate it. But even then that 'carnage' is only sort of glancingly addressed, as if a building could be destroyed and presumably thousands of lives lost, but the minute the camera looks away, everything's fine."
Of course, not everything was so grim if you ventured beyond the multiplex. If you chose to seek it out you could listen to the worldly arguments of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight, watch Greta Gerwig dance in Frances Ha, or be schooled in the Shakespeare witticisms of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing. But The Way, Way Back is a bit more accessible than those heavily stylized films. It's certainly not a blockbuster, despite the presence of stars like Steve Carell. It's also not exactly an art film. But whatever it is, it feels like a quintessentially summer movie, all about the strange and awkward magic of a kid growing up, while the grownups around act like children. Sam Rockwell, playing our young hero's mentor, gives a performance that's equal parts riotous and tender; it deserves all the praise it can get. Seeing it yesterday afternoon was a relief, especially after finally going to see World War Z the day before. What's heartening is that there's a lot more in the smaller, more considerate vein of The Way, Way Back coming in the next two months. Sure, Pacific Rim opens this week, and everyone has high hopes for the sure-to-be-violent Elysium, but there are also plenty of movies to see that are blessedly devoid of big action set pieces.
Awards season starts this week with the release of Sundance hit Fruitvale Station, about the 2009 New Year's Day shooting of Oscar Grant. Though it focuses on a tragic death, it's really about that death, rather than using it as simple entertainment; it's a movie that should be especially powerful with the Travyon Martin trial still consuming media attention. On July 26 the newly reinvigorated Woody Allen brings us his latest, Blue Jasmine, a comedy with some serious undertones starring Cate Blanchett. The raunchy teen girl comedy The To Do List, featuring a bunch of people you like from TV (Aubrey Plaza, Connie Britton), also opens July 26. In August we'll get the lovely teenage romance The Spectacular Now, David Gordon Green's road crew movie Prince Avalanche, and historical drama The Butler (which may or may not have that title by the time the film opens). August is often a time when theaters overflow with hits from festivals earlier in the year. You'll see comedies like Afternoon Delight, about a woman who takes in a stripper, and In A World..., about voiceover artists. If you're into more serious stuff, there's Short Term 12, about a woman who works in a foster-care facility. That film's star, Brie Larson, is winning raves, even some early awards buzz. Then there's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, in which Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play outlaws in dreamy Texas. Alas, many of these are limited release, but maybe they'll pop up On Demand before summer's end.
It's not that we don't love big action films, it's just that most of them this summer have been overly long, overly serious, and overly depressing when you stop to think about how much havoc was wreaked. So we'd urge you to go out and see a movie like The Way, Way Back. Small, sweet, and refreshing, it's a good reminder that not every summer vacation has to end in destruction.