SIFF Film Review – The Way, Way Back
Adolescence is a rough time for everybody. And the movies have a long, varied tradition of pumping out various coming-of-age tales. Some have been classics; some, not so much. But for anyone that is living through or has lived through their early teenage years, a lot of times these films hit a chord of truth. Adding to this tradition is the new gentle comedy The Way, Way Back.
This is the first film from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who plays Dean Pelton on Community and is Internet famous for his Angelina Jolie leg meme) since their Oscar win for writing The Descendants. This time they direct as well. They seem attracted to the notion of quirky characters attempting to find themselves. Here they have assembled a large cast of actors that we all like watching most of the time. Their dialogue is snappy and cute. While the storytelling may be a little obvious, the characters created are so much fun to spend time with that it overrides most of the feeling that we’ve seen most of this movie before. It’s like skilled cooks making your favorite dish: it’s not new, but it’s pleasing.
The Way, Way Back stars Liam James (Linden’s son on TV’s The Killing) as the awkward, introverted 14-year-old Duncan, who never comes out of his shell and on a scale of 1 to 10 sees himself as a 6. His divorced mother, played by Toni Collette, her jerky boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter drag him to Trent’s beach house for an extended summer vacation. This vacation is a chance for the adults to party with their overbearing friends, which include Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet as a married couple with the party boat, and the always wonderful Allison Janney as their alcoholic neighbor. Janney has a cute daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), on whom Duncan has a silent crush, and a younger son, Peter (River Alexander), who has many jokes made about his lazy eye.
Duncan is pretty miserable being stuck watching the grownups drink all night and having girls on the beach thinking he’s odd. His summer picks up, however, when he meets the charming slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell), who manages the local rundown water slide park. They initially bond over a game of Pac-Man, and Duncan quickly latches onto Owen as a rare positive adult influence. Owen’s crew at the park includes Faxon, Rash, and Maya Rudolph as the lone voice of reason in a place that he essentially treats as his fiefdom. Owen is charming and quite fun for the kids surrounding him. He has a constant stream of jokes and patter that it takes Duncan a while to catch on to.
As you can see, this is a particularly stellar cast. Carell is the big jerk in the household, but without being cartoonish or turning into Michael Scott. He’s the kind of passively controlling adult we’ve all dealt with before. Collette plays conflicted well, as she seems torn between her son and her potential life partner. Janney is boisterous as the aging party girl who’s trying to compensate for being dumped by an ex-husband who moved on to a much younger woman. But in particular, I have to come out and admit I think I’ve developed a man-crush on Sam Rockwell. He plays the most fun character to listen to here. Whether using communist dictators as nicknames for kids attending his water park or philosophizing over not following patterns in video games or telling a parking attendant to be careful with his convertible because “it’s just the right amount of crappy,” Rockwell is a charmer. He always seems to be the best thing in whatever movie he appears in, good or bad. He redeemed most of Iron Man 2, he can hold his own in a movie like Moon, he was watchable back when we didn’t know who he was in GalaxyQuest. Why he isn’t more of an above-the-title named star at this point is beyond me. But here again he makes the most of his screen time.
The Way, Way Back is definitely in the mode of past teenage dramedies. It shares a lot in common with Adventureland if that movie had been slightly more wholesome. Or if you liked Moonrise Kingdom but are looking for something a little more straightforward. Actually, tonally this feels a lot like Faxon’s recently departed series Ben and Kate. That show was quirky, charming, and sweet. So is this. And it should be good counter-programming to the other big new release that features giant robots, dinosaurs, explosions, and IMAX 3D. This movie is for everyone looking for characters over flash.
Final Grade: B+