Wednesday, July 24, 2013



- It's been a good summer for quirky coming-of-age flicks. Several weeks back. The Kings of Summer really impressed me with its offbeat charm. Earlier in the summer, Frances Ha wowed me as one of the better movies about young adulthood in quite some time. Now, THE WAY WAY BACK comes along and impresses me even more. This is a movie that, first off, comes to you via some very smart and funny people: Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. These guys really can do it all. They co-wrote the script for the Oscar-winning The Descendants. And they've both done very funny stuff as actors - Rash is hilarious as the Dean on Community, and Faxon impressed as goofball older brother Ben on FOX's tragically short-lived sitcom Ben and Kate. This is a duo that deserves major attention. I would love to see them continue to churn out oddball comedies that they both write and appear in. The Way Way Back is proof that these guys have great, funny, affecting stories to tell.

The lead character here is Duncan (Liam James), a sullen teen who is dragged on a summer retreat with his family. His divorced mom, Pam (Toni Colette) has a new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is taking Pam, Duncan, and his daughter Steph to his summer beach house. In a sunny, breazy, beachy town brimming with colorful characters, Duncan feels more miserable than ever. He hates Trent, the slightly older Steph is embarrassed to be seen with him, and the adults who hang around the beach house are less mature and more annoying than Steph's snooty friends. But Duncan finds an oasis from the misery in the form of the Water Wizz water park. After a chance encounter with the park's man-child owner Owen (an awesome Sam Rockwell), Duncan gets a job working at Water Wizz. There, with Owen as his zen-master mentor, Duncan learns to loosen up, be confident, laugh at himself, and just generally begins to realize that, yes, "it gets better."

The Way Way Back blends drama and comedy in such a way so as to perfectly capture a sense of teenage wasteland. The angst is reminiscent of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but there's also a lot of overt, quirky comedy that balances out the movie's darker elements. The relationship between Duncan and Trent is particularly raw. In fact, the movie opens on a car-ride conversation between them that is funny, but also flat-out heartbreaking. Reportedly based on a real-life conversation between a young Jim Rash and his step-dad, Carell's Trent says that Duncan is only a three out of ten - essentially calling him a loser to his face. This sets the stage for the rest of the film. We see Duncan grow up and realize his own self-worth, even as Trent - falsely confident, a yuppie d-bag - is cut down to size. Carell brilliantly makes Trent into a truly hateable character - taking some of the worst aspects of Michael Scott, but toning them down just enough so that Trent's self-centered meanness is all too believable and grounded. The performance though that really drives this home is Toni Collette's. To me, she is in many ways the heart and soul of the film - and she has some absolutely heartbreaking moments. It's a tour-de-force bit of acting, because Colette perfectly conveys just how desperate this middle-aged divorcee is to make this seemingly solid relationship work. At the same time, we see her eyes start to open as to Trent's true nature, and the cracks in the relationship start to show more and more clearly.

On the flipside, Sam Rockwell is similarly brilliant as Owen. He's the classic slacker sort of guy - the ultimate big brother: full of wisdom about life, girls, and how to achieve maximum waterslide velocity. He's got some hilarious moments, but there's also a slowly-developing poignancy in his relationship with Duncan. But the real fun comes when Rockwell's Owen is paired with Jim Rash and/or Nat Faxon, as an odd-couple pair of longtime Water Wizz employees. Both are absolutely hilarious - Rash playing the oh-so-over-it curmudgeon, and Faxon playing the horndog prankster who's made an artform of checking out bikini-clad girls as they wait for their turn on the waterslides. The gang at Water Wizz is hilarious, but there's also a specificity and authenticity to their interactions that rings true. Anyone who's worked at a summer camp or held any other such summer job will likely relate to the sense of wild-west possibility that comes with working at the Water Wizz.

There are several other strong supporting turns in the film. AnnaSophia Robb is quite good as an outsidery teen who forms a connection with Duncan. Also excellent is Alison Janney as her loopy, quasi-alcoholic mother. Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are very interesting as a couple friendly with Trent. Corddry is usually the likable oddball, but here there is a menace behind his easygoing facade. He's like the school bully who never quite grew out of it. And Peet is also playing against type, as a troublemaking flirt. Again, there's something almost disturbing about her character, because it's illustrative of those moments you have growing up where you realize that adults - far from having it all figured out - can have just as many issues and failings as kids and teens, if not more so.

What didn't work as well for me? Surprisingly, even though I love Maya Rudolph in general, she seemed maybe a little miscast here as Rockwell's co-worker/love interest Caitlin. The movie really wants you to root for things to work out between the two, but there's not much chemistry. And it's hard to see what the laid-back, witty Owen sees, exactly, in the wet-blanket Caitlin. In any case, this part of the film seems a little forced. My biggest issue with the movie though might be some of the choices made by lead actor Liam James. Overall, he's good. But he lays on the malaise just a little too thick. He's *so* sullen and awkward for most of the movie that he seems less like an angsty teen and more like someone who has serious mental health issues. And who knows, maybe that's how he was told to play things. But if the character is really supposed to suffer from clinical depression, it's never really explored in the film. Not that this is a movie that needed to go the full Silver Linings Playbook route, but it does seem to take Duncan to some pretty dark, extreme places. The result is that some of the big emotional moments feel a little overdone and, at times, slightly cheesy - because James as Duncan seems to go a little too far.

One other weird thing about the movie - not a huge knock, but just sort of odd: I think it may have originally been set in the 80's? Clearly there's an autobiographical element to the film, but there's a sort-of-strange disconnect where many of the trappings (old Pac Man arcade games, 80's-era music, the Water Wizz park itself) seem of a certain period. And yet, there are cell phones, so I guess the movie's actually set in modern times? Regardless, there's definitely a very 80's vibe to the film, and many tonal similarities to the coming-of-age movies of that era.

While I felt some key scenes in the middle of the film felt a little tonally off, things really gelled in the movie's final act, and the film really won me over with its genuinely winning and triumphant final scenes. What I liked and appreciated was that the movie didn't cheat, and wrap things up, plot-wise, in a tidy bow. Things are left unresolved, and yet, the emotional arcs of the movie come to a head in a natural and satisfying manner. We don't know exactly what will become of Duncan, for example, but we do know that he has evolved from the character we met at the start of the movie. As has his mother. The movie has a great, macro thematic arc that colors it - the journey of these characters as they discover their own self-worth. When faced with the Trents of the world - those who rate them as mere three-out-of-tens, these characters can feel like they're stuck in the proverbial way-way-back (or the literal way-way-back - Duncan is forced to sit in the rear-facing backseat of Trent's old station wagon). But the movie shows how a guy like Duncan can learn to overcome - to become a man, maybe even a great man. Maybe - if he can be the first person to ever pass someone else on Water Wizz's tallest and windiest waterslide - he can even become a legend. The Way Way Back is highly recommended. It's one of the must-see indie flicks of the summer.

My Grade: A-

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