The Way Way Back really is one of the best films of the year, and you should definitely go and see it while it's playing in cinemas. Like, now. Having said that, I'm aware that there have been other celebrated coming-of-age movies this year, and that their releases were smaller than the one that The Way Way Back has enjoyed.
I've yet to catch up with The Kings of Summer, but the other one that really stands out is Mud, a tall tale that takes place in Arkansas, which is now out on DVD and Blu-ray. Two teenage boys, Ellis and Neckbone, row down the Mississippi river to a small island, where they discover a boat that's become lodged in a tree. Their ownership plans are thwarted by the presence of a mysterious man, known only as Mud. He enlists the boys to run errands for him, as he seeks to reunite with Juniper, his true love from the mainland, and escape a troubled past.
The film moves surprisingly quickly, with the two kids meeting the title character around five minutes in. It's like a fairy tale in both theme, and the way it delivers its main premise very early on- "Once upon a time, there was a man who lived on an island, waiting for the woman he loved." It's fitting to start there, and then fill in the blanks around the tall tale- coming from a young perspective, it just makes more sense to start with the fantasy of Mud, and then introduce more reality. In structural terms, it's a little like The Great Gatsby, which had a much more lavish adaptation released in UK cinemas around the same time.
The McCon-naissance continues unabated here, with McConaughey essaying an unkempt, Stig-of-the-Dump kind of character, sunburnt by exposure to the island's climate and living off of cold beans, eaten from the can. He's represented as a fundamentally romantic figure, even as reality creeps in and his mystique is stripped away. He has so much in common with Ellis, but of course he's much older, and his chivalrous actions have had far graver consequences throughout his life. It's as much a coming-of-age story for him as it is for the younger character.
If there's a problem with the film, it's that the female characters never seem to be up to much good. Ellis' mother is leaving his father, a move that would allow the river authority to take their houseboat away and wreck the family business. Then he tries to throw himself into a whirlwind romance with an older girl, May Pearl, which we know can only end in tears. And then there's Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon, a mass of non-committal contradictions that doesn't bear up to the ideal of true love, about which both Mud and Ellis have fantasised.
Is this representation particularly damaging? Well, it doesn't seem deliberate, or malicious, and it's in a film that is more about men growing up than it is about unreliable women. Director Jeff Nichols shoots the film beautifully, and his script is so well put together, even Michael Shannon's cool with showing up for a minor role as Neckbone's uncle, and underplaying it in a way that we haven't really seen from him. Apparently Nichols wanted him in a bigger role, presumably as Ellis' father, but Zod-duties kept him away. This actually worked out for the better, because Ray McKinnon has some really great scenes as the tough, yet soft-hearted patriarch.
Mud is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
If you've seen Mud, why not share your comments below? Is there no stopping the McCon-naissance?! More importantly, do we even want to?
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.