Silver Screen: The Way Way Back ****
At the other end of the small-movie (and socio-economic) spectrum is the breezy summertime dramedy The Way Way Back. This coming-of-age movie is mostly indie-movie boilerplate-- the unfortunate tagline is “We’ve All Been There,” which might as well read “We’ve All Seen This at Least a Couple Times Before.” But while there’s no innovation in The Way Way Back, the movie earns its laughs honestly and handles the drama adroitly.
The Way Way Back defines its dramedy by location. The heavy stuff takes place at a summer cottage where young protagonist Duncan (Liam James) is forced to spend his vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collete) and her douchebag boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). The self-involved Trent domineers wallflower divorcée Pam and attempts to bond with his potential stepson via a constant stream of tough-love insults and damning critiques, which only further isolates Duncan from his mother.
But Duncan is a different person entirely at Water Wizz, a semi-dilapidated water park overseen by a cutup caretaker, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes pity on the poor kid and decides to mentor him. Owen is a motormouthed goofball whose arrested-development lifestyle seems glamorous to a kid without a driver’s license, but what Owen lacks in ambition he makes up for in good will and enthusiasm. With Owen’s help, Duncan must learn to navigate the adult world, or at least survive in it without succumbing to despair.
You can pretty easily suss out everything that will happen in The Way Way Back within the first few scenes. What are the chances Duncan won’t strike up a romance with the pretty, strong-willed blond girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb)? About as good as the chances that Trent’s crass, hard-drinking couple friends (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) won’t cause trouble for Pam by the third act. It’s impressive though that The Way Way Back’s most predictable plot turns and blatant emotional manipulations do little to hinder enjoyment of the film. We might know how Duncan and Owen’s relationship will play out, but the quality of their interactions is significant.
Cowriters and directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won an Oscar for their excellent screen adaptation of The Descendants. That same sly humor is on display here, although the pathos is significantly dialed down. The stakes aren’t so high, but the individual lines still pack a wallop, and there’s real emotional intensity in Duncan’s later confrontations with Trent.
Carell makes for an understated but spectacularly loathsome villain, while Rockwell’s natural charm is on full display. Owen keeps responsibility at bay with a steady stream of jokes, but the little lulls in his patter show flashes of concern for Duncan that keep his character from becoming a cartoon sidekick. By the end of the movie, as Rash and Faxon reveal more tidbits about his life and relationship with his sometimes girlfriend (Maya Rudolph), I started to wish the movie focused less on standard-issue sensitive white kid Duncan and more on Owen. That’s more a compliment to Rash and Faxon’s facility with being able to ground quirky characters in reality than it is a complaint about the version of The Way Way Back that did make it to the screen. Even in its moments of mediocrity, it lays flat the Goliaths of summer.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.