The Way Way Back (2013) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for mature themes, language, some sexual content, and brief drug material
Running time: 103 min.
Cast: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, River Alexander, Zoe Levin, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Adam Riegler
Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Screenplay: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Review published July 21, 2013
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, two of the three credited screenwriters for the Oscar-winning adapted screenplay for The Descendants, not only collaborate yet again for the script of this original poignant coming-of-age dramedy, but also direct for the first time, as well as also give themselves small supporting roles as waterpark employees Roddy and Lewis, respectively.
Although it is chock full of recognizable actors, the main star is a relatively unknown Liam James (AvP: Requiem, Fred Claus) as 14-year-old introvert Duncan, who we find reluctantly brought by his divorced mother Pam (Collette, Hitchcock) to her heel-ish boyfriend Trent's (Carell, Crazy Stupid Love) New England summer beach home. Tensions simmer between withdrawn Duncan and condescending Trent, to the point where Duncan would rather go somewhere, anywhere, than stay in a home where he's consistently being picked on or laughed at by the adults, while his mother is either oblivious or not protective of his sensitive needs. Duncan finds his home away from home at a nearby waterpark managed by the rascally Owen (Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths), whose uncouth antics begin to draw out the lad from under his many layers of shyness.
Although it is, at times, contrived and predictable, The Way Way Back remains a successful dramatic comedy, mostly because Faxon and Rash take the time to establish its characters and the situations before liberties are taken in order to draw out big laughs or to go for deeper thematic material. Luckily, they've assembled a very colorful and competent cast of character actors in order to flesh out the rounded roles, with a surprisingly effective turn by Liam James in carrying the movie without going too far and making it seem like a phony portrayal of a socially awkward teenager.
Carell is strong in a firmly non-comedic role of the a-hole, but it's Rockwell that steals the show as the loveable 'grown-up that refuses to grow up' who finds worth in people often overlooked, even if it's in his nature to not value the things others consider important. Just as Bill Murray did with his early work in such films as Meatballs, the roguish Rockwell effortlessly works well as a role model for a young troupe of misfit kids, and his warm and affecting performance ranks as one of his most appealing character portrayals to date.
Though the themes presented often ring true, there are some silly, contrived scenes that keep this in the realm of "pretty good" rather than "great". Such Napoleon Dynamite-worthy moments involve such things as Duncan having to 'bust a move' in front of a crowd (he earns the name 'Pop and Lock' for trying to get in the middle of a breakdance dance-off), and a few involving a mild competition for recognition on the waterpark slides. As Duncan is so withdrawn that he's literally out of most conversations, the script forces the issues forward through at least a half-dozen key moments that the young man conveniently overhears or spies upon at just the right moment to effect a story shift.
There's also a bit of a mismatch between Duncan and the sweet, super-cute older girl next door, Susanna (Robb, Soul Surfer), who seems to see more value in the young man than is ever really evident, which makes their perceived closeness a bit of a stretch. And a side supporting character named Peter (Alexander), who has strabismus (his eyes aren't aligned), is written solely to draw out a few yuks, though it would seem a stretch that his mother (Janney, Juno), who is constantly ridiculing his condition, would still be making fun of it, especially as it is a condition he was born with -- you'd think she'd have run out of insults years before.
The Way Way Back may occasionally waver in terms of credibility and originality, but that doesn't stop it from being a modest crowd-pleasing film for those viewers just looking for some quality laughs and bittersweet, heart-felt moments of people who find their own path, however awkwardly, that resonate.
©2013 Vince Leo