Thursday, August 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

The Way Way Back
Directed by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.
Written by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.
Starring: Steve Carell (Trent), Toni Collette (Pam), Allison Janney (Betty), AnnaSophia Robb (Susanna), Sam Rockwell (Owen), Maya Rudolph (Caitlin), Liam James (Duncan), Rob Corddry (Kip), Amanda Peet (Joan), River Alexander (Peter), Zoe Levin (Steph), Nat Faxon (Roddy), Jim Rash (Lewis).

It doesn’t surprise me that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way Way Back has already become a hit by current Indie movie standards. It is a likable, funny, warm hearted coming of age story that, while set in the present, certainly feels like it could have taken place at any time. This is an intimate, small scale comedy – no gross out jokes about fecal matter or bodily fluids. It is a relaxed movie that is easy to sink into. It isn’t challenging, and certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to coming of age stories – but it is also a movie almost impossible to dislike.

The film stars newcomer Liam James as Duncan – a shy, sullen 14 year old, still upset at his parents’ divorce – who is stuck spending the summer at the beach house of his mother’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is a bully – but a subtle one. He doesn’t hit Duncan, or even yell at him, but prefers to quietly humiliate him whenever he can – all under the guise of trying to help Duncan “grow”. Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) allows all this to happen, not because she doesn’t love Duncan, but because she seems to willfully ignore just what Trent is doing to him. Duncan has no desire to spend the summer at the beach house with Trent, or his “mean girl” daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) – but he doesn’t have much of a say in the matter. Things don’t get much better when they arrive and they meet Trent’s friends – the boozy, inappropriately hilarious Betty (Allison Janney – making far more of her role than the screenplay does) and the seemingly fun loving couple of Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) – who clearly have issues of their own.

Only two things keep the summer bearable for Duncan – the first is the prospect of young love with Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who is slightly older, beautiful, and although she is friends with Steph, it’s safe to say it’s a friendship based more on proximity rather than shared interested. The other is Water Wizz – a water park that Duncan bikes to one day. The manager – the fun loving, free-wheeling Owen (Sam Rockwell) sees this sad eyed kid, gives him a job, and takes him under his wing. During the course of the summer, although Trent remains an asshole, and Pam remains willfully blind to that fact, Duncan does grow.

The movie is fairly straight forward and predictable – the dueling surrogate father figures, one good, one bad, the slow change in Duncan as he gains confidence and comes out of his shell, the feel good ending. For their directing debut, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – who won Oscars for co-writing The Descendants with Alexander Payne are also actors, with supporting roles in the movie – have elected to keep things fairly simple. But the film shows the potential of what they could become down the line – the writing has a nice, relaxed feel to it, they don’t try to overdo the direction, and best of all, they get great performances out of their actors.

Young Liam James does an excellent job playing Duncan. He doesn’t change so much during the course of the movie that his progression becomes unbelievable – but he does change enough that is noticeable. It’s a tricky role for an actor, and James is great in it. Carell is very good as asshole Trent – a nice change of pace from his regular “good guy” shtick that had begun to grow a little stale (Carell seems to think so to, because in addition to this movie, and the recent, forgettable The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, where he played a pompous ass, he is playing a schizophrenic in Bennett Miller’s upcoming Foxcather). The best performance in the movie is by Sam Rockwell as Owen. Yes, he’s playing the kind of fast talking, charming, funny role that Rockwell has perfected over the years, but he gives Owen a little more depth than many of his characters – and he’s able to go from funny to sincere in a heartbeat, and make the change seem real. I wish I they had given Toni Collette more to do – but she’s fine as the mother – and the same could be said about Robb as the love interest, or Maya Rudolph as another waterpark employee. I think Faxon and Rash have to work on giving their female characters a little more depth next time out.

Overall, The Way Way Back is a funny, charming feel good, coming of age indie movie. I would have no problem recommending it to any teenager – who has more of chance of seeing themselves in this movie, and perhaps even taking something away from it than it most Hollywood comedies aimed at teenagers. And anyone else who happens to see it will undoubtedly leave the theater happy. It’s not an overly ambitious movie, but it is a nice debut for Faxon and Rash. I look forward to what they do next.

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