“The Way, Way Back”, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is a welcome escape in the summer sea of bloated, unimaginative summer blockbusters. Combining funny moments with incredibly rare observations, the film is a gem that deserves to be remembered among the best coming-of-age films.
Faxon (star of the short-lived TV show “Ben and Kate”) and Rash have been working on this project for years. A while back, the stars started to align and they were able to get the relatively small budget together before moving on and signing Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney and Steve Carell. At the most recent Sundance Film Festival, “The Way, Way Back” sold for a near record price to Fox Searchlight and a mid-summer release date was set.
Duncan (Liam James) travels with his divorced mom (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carell) and his older daughter (Zoe Levin) to the boyfriend’s summer house in a sleepy New York beach town. As soon as they arrive, the boyfriend’s insecurities begin to rear their ugly heads, but Mom downplays the behavior, desperate for a relationship, any relationship even if there are problems. And the boozy next door neighbor (Allison Janney) immediately insinuates herself into the family’s activities. Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) are two friends who hang out with the family a bit, but they have problems and insecurities as well. When someone comments “It’s like summer camp for adults” they weren’t kidding. As the vacation continues, and Duncan feels increasingly alienated, he finds solace and friendship in Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of Betty (Janney) and Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a rundown water park, Water Wizz.
When you watch a film like “Way Back” it quickly becomes apparent that someone was crafting this story from events they actually experienced. There are too many moments that seem real, could be real. Jim Rash wrote an early draft of the screenplay based on his own experiences. Later, when he became creative partners with Nat Faxon, they fleshed out the story and ideas and made it something that is, at times, a little magical.
As Duncan realizes how much his mom is going to side with her new-ish boyfriend, played completely against-type by Steve Carell, he spends more and more time trying to stay away from them. He spends a lot of time outside and watches as Susanna deals with her own parental issues. There are moments when we think Susanna might become the typical teenage girl, ready and willing to lord her supposedly confident sexuality over the younger boy living next door because many of the girls in her group do this. But she shows some depth and doesn’t fall into this trap; she prefers to do things her own way and that means talking with and becoming friends with Duncan. This relationship is especially refreshing and adds nice nuance to the film.
Out of frustration, Duncan rides a bike far into the little village and finds the run-down water park. He quickly meets Owen (Rockwell), his girlfriend, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) and two of the ne-er do well employees, Roddy and Lewis (Faxon and Rash). Owen immediately takes a liking to Duncan and you can see he recognizes a little of himself in the younger boy, so he befriends him and gives him a job. Duncan immediately takes to the new profession like a fish to water and really seems to grow and break out of his shell. These moments are quiet and subtle, making them seem almost downplayed and ultimately more real.
But then he has to return home every night. And face the reality of his mom’s low self-esteem and her boyfriend’s continuing efforts to demoralize him.
So the young man seeks refuge at the water park and Owen becomes a mentor to Duncan, listening to him, guiding him and teaching him. These interactions allow the teenager to have fun and forget about his troubles at home.
Liam James seems like a natural fit for Duncan, a smart, good looking, normal young teen with pretty typical problems. While this may not be an earth-shattering portrayal, the young actor makes the role very believable. We can all relate to his problems because we have gone through many, if not all, of these issues ourselves. James makes the role believable by bringing the quiet nuances and moments to life.
Toni Collette is also pretty much perfect as the single mom desperate to make her new relationship work. Because of this desperation, she overlooks many things, neglecting her needs, her son's needs, losing a little of herself and her son in the process. It is Collette’s ability to bring a quiet intensity to this role that makes it work. She doesn’t shout a lot, but pain and disappointment register on her face. And when realization hits, it is a powerful moment because it could happen to any of us.
The lovable, but awkward guy Steve Carell usually portrays is nowhere to be seen. Instead, he has a lot of problems he has clearly never dealt with, choosing to deflect them upon those around him. It is a good performance and more memorable because it is surprising.
As soon as Allison Janney’s Betty appears on screen, her mouth opens and she begins a rapid fire litany of booze-induced observations, remembrances and predictions that prove she is simply the perfect person to play this role. Betty insists on becoming a part of the festivities and Janney provides a lot of laughs throughout the film.
But the real standout in the cast is Sam Rockwell. I have never been a huge fan, but as Owen, he seems the perfect fit. Again, there are some great comic observances, but the filmmakers have also managed to give him moments of particularly lucid introspection. Owen recognizes a lot of himself in Duncan and while he realizes it is too late for him to change, there is still time for Duncan.
“The Way, Way Back” is a fairly rare film; when you leave the theater you feel like smiling rather than demanding a refund. You also remember moments from it, moments that will make you smile and moments that will make you talk about the story with your friends and family. Don’t miss it.