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Josh Reviews The Way Way Back

After a summer of moderately disappointing blockbusters, my favorite film of the season so far is a delightful little gem of a flick, The Way Way Back!

I love a good coming of age movie, and in particular I am a sucker for films that focus on the specific sub-culture of kids taking summer-season jobs.  I have worked all my life at a wonderful summer camp, and I think there’s a special romance to the live-your-whole-life-in-the-span-of-eight-weeks experience that everyone who, while a teenager, held one of those summer jobs can understand.  I loved the film Adventureland (click here for my review) for the way it captured that magical way in which kids can grow up over the course of a summer, and The Way Way Back captures that same sort of magic.

Duncan (Liam James) is a quiet boy whose mother, Pam (Toni Collette) is divorced.  When we first glimpse Duncan, we see him relegated to the “way way back,” the backwards-facing seat of Pam’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell)’s station wagon.  Duncan and Pam will be spending the summer at Trent’s beach house, along with Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Since Steph wants nothing to do with him, Duncan is trapped with his mom and Trent and all of Trent’s friends, including the talky, boozy Betty (Allison Janney); Kip (Rob Corddry) and his flirtatious wife Joan (Amanda Peet).  Eventually Duncan finds solace in a part-time job at a local, small-time water park, and a friend and almost-father-figure in the park’s amiable manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell).

One might misconstrue the title to mean that The Way Way Back is a period piece (like Adventureland, set in the 1980’s, was), but it’s not.  We occasionally see ipods and modern-looking cell phones.  But in the very best possible way, The Way Way Back is dressed in nostalgia and memory, as if we are Duncan looking back, years later, on this summer that profoundly affected him.  The film doesn’t pull any punches in the way that adults can, whether meaning to or not, be terribly cruel to kids.  But the film also doesn’t wallow in that misery (in the way that, say, the great but dour and hard for me to watch The Ice Storm does).  There’s a warmth to the film that I connected to in a powerful way.

Liam James is incredibly effective as Duncan.  This is a young actor I have never seen before, but I will take notice of him now.  He brings a great naturalism to his performance.  He doesn’t over-play the role.  He’s quiet and inward in the way that many 14-year-old boys are.  He sells a few big moments, and all of the many little tiny moments, that together make up the film.

But the film belongs to Sam Rockwell as Owen.  I was extraordinarily taken with Mr. Rockwell’s performance in the film.  I’ve been a fan of his since Galaxy Quest, and I have loved Mr. Rockwell in a great many movies since then (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Choke, The Green Mile, Heist, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Frost/Nixon, Iron Man 2, Moon).  Mr. Rockwell has always had terrific comedic timing, aided and abetted by his fast-talking, snarky sensibility.  Here, Mr. Rockwell is a riot as always, and his fast-talking sense of humor is front and center.  But he has taken his usual sarcastic edge right out of his work, imbuing Owen with a powerful sense of warmth.  Owen is not a saint, not by any means.  He’s imperfect, and he has problems.  But he’s there for Duncan in all the ways that Trent is not, and I found myself to be quite taken by the relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan in the film.

In the opposite to Mr. Rockwell’s performance, the usually sweet, affable Steve Carell has sucked all the sweetness right out of his work as Trent.  The character still has Mr. Carell’s confidence and charisma.  We can see why Trent is the leader of his pack of friends, and why Pam was drawn to him.  But the character is cruel and selfish in ways that cut Duncan deeply.  He is not a monster or a super-villain, just a small petty man.  It was interesting to me to see how well Mr. Carell was able to use his usual mannerisms, only twisted just so in a way to create an entirely different effect.

The entire ensemble of this film is just perfection.  Allison Janney is magnificent as the permanently-soused Betty.   This is probably my very favorite of Ms. Janney’s many film roles.  She’s off-putting when we first meet her, just a train-wreck of pushy cheerfulness.  But by the end of the film I found that I had a lot of affection for Betty (and her last scene is wonderful).  Ms. Janney proves masterful at knowing when to swing for the fences with an outlandish caricature of a comedic performance (and she is very, very funny in the film) without ever losing the reality of a real character there behind the smile and the drink in her hand.  It’s a tremendous performance.

AnnaSophia Robb plays Betty’s daughter Susanna.  In her own way, she seems to share Duncan’s outsider status.  She’s friends with Steph and the other popular, older girls, but we can quickly see that she’s not exactly one of them.  She’s way more centered and confident than Duncan is, but like him she is still trying to figure out who she is, and where she fits in.  Susanna is kind to Duncan, but he’s flustered and awkward trying to interact with this pretty older girl.  There’s definitely a sense that Duncan might have some romantic interest in her, and she in him, but I love that the film didn’t make Duncan’s growing-up story about whether he can land a girl.  There’s a lot more going on than that.  The only downside of that is that, in the end, we don’t get to know Susanna nearly as well as some of the other characters in the film.  I was nevertheless quite impressed with Ms. Robb’s work.  Like Liam James, she is able to underplay her scenes in a way that I found very real.  It’s very strong work.

Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are solid gold perfection as Trent’s awful friends, and I also loved the world of friends who Duncan joins through his job at Water Wizz.  Maya Rudolph does terrific work as Owen’s girlfriend Caitlin, who seems to be the one trying to keep some semblance of order in the running of the water park.  This is not a showy comedic role, but Ms. Rudolph hits all the right notes in a very likable, human performance.  She’s sweet and tough in all the right ways — we can see why she’d be drawn to Owen and also why he makes her absolutely crazy.  I recognized Nat Faxon right away (he plays the affable, water-slide-running Roddy) but wasn’t sure where I’d seen him from before.  An imdb search shows that he’s appeared in many films I have seen (Hamlet 2, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) but this is the first time he’s ever made a strong impression on me.  He’s terrific in the film — like all the cast, just perfectly-cast in the role.  And he also co-wrote and co-directed the film!!  Equally perfect is Jim Rash, who also co-wrote and co-directed the film, and who also has a supporting role!  Mr. Rash plays the perennially grumpy and on-the-verge-of-quitting park employee Lewis.  He is a riot.  I loved the whole Water Wizz gang!!  Like Duncan, I loved every minute with that motley crew, and wished I had more time to spend with them.

I bow my head in respect for what co-writers and co-directors Mr. Rash and Mr. Faxon have created with this film.  It hit all the right chords with me — there is humor in the film, but also drama and some deep emotion.  Tone can prove fiendishly difficult for even the most experiences writers and directors to capture, and Mr. Rash and Mr. Faxon make it look effortless.

I don’t want to over-sell what is really a small, little story, but I highly recommend this film.  I love me my super-heroes and my giant robots, but as I look back at the summer of 2013, it is The Way Way Back that spoke to me the most.  This is a film I look forward to revisiting, and I hope anyone who is reading this takes the time to track it down.

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