Triple-threat directors/writers/actors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (recent co-Oscar winners for ‘The Descendants’ screenplay) have crafted an endearing mix of comedy and drama in the new film ‘The Way, Way Back,’ adding an engaging, and familiar, retro vibe.
In ‘The Way, Way Back,’ 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) finds himself being transported for mandatory family fun in the ‘way, way’ (rear-facing) backseat of the near-mint condition 1970s-era Buick station wagon belonging to Trent (Steve Carell), Duncan’s mother’s boyfriend. Duncan feels depressed, alone, and emotionally distanced from his single-parent mom, Pam (Toni Colette). Trent largely derides Duncan, pushing him aside, and entices Pam fully into the New England vacation town’s ‘spring break for adults’ atmosphere. Awkward and often taciturn, Duncan finds an old bike and sets off across the beach town, finally coming upon Water Wizz, a bastion of 1980s water-slide technology, owned by the charming (but somewhat carefree and jokey) Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen hires Duncan to work at the Wizz, where the slightly nutty staff (among them Rash and Faxon) and adoring teenage patrons help give meaning to Duncan’s formerly sad summer.
The elements of ‘The Way, Way Back’ have all been seen in adolescent-themed movies before: the coming-of-age pain, the awkwardness of being a teen, the empathetic girl next door, the immature (but smarter-than-the-system) mentor with a heart-of-gold, etc. But, so often, movies about teens are FOR teens and are very superficially scripted, as if thematically ‘bucking the system’ and transformation can only be appreciated by the young. But, very overtly, with their fantastic, occasionally somewhat arcane, 1980s references (to Pac Man techniques, Mr. Mister, and Bonnie Tyler among others), Rash and Faxon have set out to appeal to a much-older-than-teen crowd.
Their writing feels sharp, authentic, perceptive, and often laugh-out-loud funny with just the right amount of nostalgia without being too gooey. And, the audience can almost palpably experience Duncan’s pain of exclusion, feeling all the more pleased when he meets Owen, as a familiar ‘Meatballs’-era Bill Murray character. Of note, Sam Rockwell, a chameleon of an actor, entirely inhabits the cool, smart, free-spirited, best-buddy Murray archetype, and elevates the film from charming to truly entertaining. His charismatic performance should be remembered at awards time.
This darling of Sundance is definitely an appealing and clever film — even with some very familiar ingredients. We have seen many movies like this before, but this version feels heartfelt and, yet, touchingly humorous. Its mix of comedy-drama and winning performances (particularly by Rockwell) appeals to those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, making it my favorite film of the summer, so far. ‘The Way, Way Back’ is rated 5 of 5 stars (‘highly recommended’).
‘The Way, Way Back’ is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.
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