Sam Rockwell just does not get the credit he deserves. Most people do not know his name (“Hey, there is that guy!”) and he so seldom gets the chance to shine in a lead role (at least in mainstream, studio films). All of this is a shame because he is one of the best and most versatile actors working today.
Rockwell is also one of the best parts of all-around good summer movie – The Way, Way Back, a new coming-of-age indie comedy/drama hitting theaters this weekend.
Fourteen year-old Duncan, played with genuine awkwardness by Liam James, reluctantly goes on summer vacation with his recently divorced, slightly overbearing mom (the always dependable Toni Collete) and her jerk of a new boyfriend (an uncharacteristically mean-spirited Steve Carrell). Having a rough time fitting in and trying in earnest to avoid his mom, Duncan finds solace at a local water park and a true friend in its offbeat manager Owen (Rockwell).
Both indie dramedies and coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen. Countless come out of the wood work every year, but only few are ever worthwhile and memorable (a subject I touched on just a few weeks ago in my review for another indie standout, The Kings of Summer). The stories are often very similar in tone and plot, plus they all typically end happily. So what makes one better than another?
To me, one of the keys is the supporting cast – and The Way, Way Back has got a great one. The previously mentioned Rockwell is both goofy fun and, when necessary, inconspicuously wise in his mentorship of the slouched, outcast youth Duncan. Rockwell’s interactions with the Water Wizz customers and staff (played wonderfully droll by Maya Rudolph and co-writer/co-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon) are the comedic highlights of the film.
So while most of the comedy in this comedy-drama comes from the water park, in turn, most of the drama happens when Duncan is stuck at home with his not-quite-family. His mom is going through a tough time after the divorce and it only gets worse as her new boyfriend Trent increasingly emerges as more and more of an inconsiderate jerk. Thanks to Owen’s guidance and his experiences at the water park, Duncan finds his confidence in life and at home, which ultimately causes tension, especially with Trent, a rather condescending bully.
Though homelife is not all gloom and doom. As Duncan’s angsty neighbor/budding love interest (played by AnnaSophia Robb) points out, “It’s like spring break for adults” – and the neighbors (Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and the outlandish drunkard Allison Janney) take full advantage of that.
It is impossible to avoid all clichés when it comes to movies like this. The Way, Way Back does have its fair share, but for the most part, it avoids falling into the same old lazy traps as other similar films. The film revels in its awkward situations and sarcastic humor, but it is also very sweet and uplifting. Furthermore, it touches on some very serious issues – mainly divorce – in an exceptionally honest way. Adolescence can be a tough time for anyone, but also dealing with problems like that (that are so out of one’s control) can certainly make it even tougher.
We have all gone through that awkward phase in life, so it is incredibly rewarding to watch the dorky, gloomy turtle find himself and finally emerge from his shell. Hopefully with this great performance and many others, Sam Rockwell can finally emerge as bigger movie star as well.
As stated before, the film is co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, actors-turned-filmmakers who also penned the Oscar-winning script for The Descendants. This is their directorial debut.
**** out of 5 stars
The Way, Way Back opens Friday, July 19 in New Orleans at The Theatres at Canal Place and AMC Elmwood Palace 20 with several showtimes daily.
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