How do you follow-up a 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar win for ‘The Descendants?’ If you’re the writing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, you forge ahead into the world of moviemaking with a delightful coming-of-age film, ‘The Way, Way Back.’ With their vibrant writing style, they manage to capture that awkward and emotionally-charged period of youth. Sure, this ground has been covered in previous films but this talented duo gives it just the right amount of humor and dignity. Although it is a comedy, the film has its dramatic moments that unfold in an honest manner. What makes the story so endearing is that the characters are well-defined and believable. It’s an enjoyable summer getaway.
The opening scene is set in a classic wood-paneled Buick station wagon. The film’s title refers to the cargo seat in the very back that would flip up for kids on long road trips. It gives the story a nostalgic feel. Our angst-ridden hero Duncan (Liam James) in the way back seat is travelling with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his snooty daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). They are headed to Trent’s New England beach house named “Riptide.” The trip is designed in the hopes this blatantly dysfunctional unit can do some much-needed bonding. As Trent is driving and the women are napping, he looks into the rear-view mirror and asks Duncan, “On a scale of one to 10, what do you think you are? Duncan hesitates and finally answers, “I don’t know… a six?” Trent fires back, “A six? You’re a three.” That biting dialogue perfectly sets the tone for the story.
Destined to a miserable summer vacation, Duncan’s salvation comes from a water park called “Water Wizz” and an unlikely friendship with the free-spirit Owen (Sam Rockwell). Rockwell is the undeniable star of the movie. He takes Duncan under his wing and gives him a job at the water park. Rockwell gives his character just the right balance of kookiness and sensitivity. It allows Duncan to come out of his emotional shell. Although Carell plays an unlikable guy, he does an impressive job showing that Trent is more of a boob than a malicious person. Trent’s next-door neighbor is the funny and always inebriated Betty (Allison Janney). Her performance is spot-on and shows us that this beach town is just an excuse for the adults to act more immature than their kids. Betty’s cute daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is in the same boat as Duncan coming from a divorced family so the two find solace in each other. She knows there is more to him than meets the eye. Their budding relationship is never forced and more importantly, it feels genuine.
As Duncan escapes to the water park, we get to see another dysfunctional family in his colorful co-workers. Not only did Faxon and Rash write the screenplay, they also directed it and have bit parts as water park employees. Faxon plays Roddy, a weathered-looking surfer type that enjoys putting the hotties into a holding pattern before they take the plunge down the water slide. Rash is equally funny as the oddball Lewis who works the equipment rental stand that nobody ever visits. Maya Rudolph rounds off the crew as Owen’s girlfriend Caitlin. They aren’t exactly losers but simply adults that have made compromises with their career aspirations. And that brings us to Duncan’s mother Pam played exceptionally well by the talented Aussie actress Toni Collette. Talk about making compromises in her life. She so desperately wants Duncan and Trent to get along and make everything work out for the best. She knows Trent is a bit of a lout but as a single-mother she’s scared to be alone. It’s a moving performance.
The pleasure of this film is in the writing and what the actors bring to their characters. In the wrong hands, Rockwell’s character could have been just a cardboard cut-out of Bill Murray’s character in Meatballs. Yet Rockwell brings humanity to this wiseguy role. ‘The Way, Way Back’ is a solid coming-of-age movie that shouldn’t be missed. It’s now available on DVD http://www.foxsearchlight.com/thewaywayback/. Check out the official trailer: http://youtu.be/OwNo1i3jkCo.