Synopsis: Over the course of his summer break, a teenager comes into his own thanks in part to the friendship he strikes up with a manager at a local water park.
Stars: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and Liam James, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry
Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Running Length: 103 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In the days and weeks since I caught a screening of The Way, Way Back I’ve taken in quite a few other films across the cinematic spectrum. At the end of each film there was only one movie in my mind and it was The Way, Way Back. While I tend to refrain from overselling a film (lest I lead my readers astray) when you have a picture of this quality you have to stand up and shout it out.
With all the reading I do on film and upcoming projects, this was a film I kept hearing good things about after a successful screening at the Sundance Film Festival. When the trailer was released I was surprised at how much interesting material was packed in and that after all was said and done I still wanted to see more. As a huge fan of 2011’s The Descendants, I was particularly curious to see what its Oscar winning screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash would devise for their follow-up to that quirky dramedy that packed a huge emotional punch.
For a film that could be seen as a mish-mash of genres from Meatballs-style summer shenanigans to family drama to coming of age heartbreak The Way, Way Back is for the most part quite focused. That’s thanks in large part to the Faxon/Rash script that seems nicely trimmed of any excess fat and provides some wonderfully diverse actors to play against type in a manner that doesn’t seem forced.
We all know that Steve Carell can float between comedy (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) and drama (Dan in Real Life) but what he shows us here is that he can believably play a hard-edged two face with little to no redemptive features. We see this right away when he quizzes the shy son (Liam James) of his girlfriend (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) to see how he’d rate himself on a scale of 1-10. Prodding the teen to give an answer while the mom and Carell’s own teenager daughter doze in the car ride to their summer beach retreat, he gets the boy to give a response and then skillfully tears him down.
Arriving in a coastal Martha’s Vineyard-esque hamlet, the car isn’t even unpacked when boozy neighbor Allison Janney (…first do no harm) bursts out of her house to welcome the blended semi-family. Janney should be nicknamed Old Reliable because she never fails in creating a memorable scene-stealer and this is no different. If anything, Janney hopefully will get some major award recognition at the end of the year for a nuanced take on the stereotypical lush who can’t keep her opinions to herself.
As the boy silently skulks through the first few days where Carell continues to brow beat him in a way that no one seems to catch on to, he finally wanders into a local water park and meets the head lifeguard (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2) who winds up taking the boy under his wing. Clearly starved for attention, the relationship that builds between Rockwell and James is sweetly winning because it comes with no strings or artifice. Rockwell’s character may be a jokester but he can spot that this kid needs a friend and provides that for him – as well as opening his eyes to the fact that life is what you make of it not what someone tells you it should be.
Also co-directing, Faxon and Rash cast themselves in small roles that fit their personas and don’t seem like they are taking advantage of their power (I’m looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan). Rounding out the cast are fine turns by Maya Rudolph as Rockwell’s superior that does her fair share of eye rolling, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry (Warm Bodies, Pain & Gain) as friends of Carell, and AnnaSophia Robb as Janney’s daughter who catches the eye of our young lead. Collette is, as ever, completely winning even though it’s frustrating to see how long she turns a blind eye to Carell’s attitude toward her son.
The film, though, belongs to Rockwell (fingers crossed an Oscar nomination is in store for him) and James as they navigate a summer filled with the right amount of fun in the sun, conversations about acceptance that ring true, and personal journeys that carry these characters upward and onward. By the time the film reaches its conclusion it has won the audiences affection and wraps things up with a powerful final image that tells us everything we need to know about what happens next.
More than any movie in recent memory, I was sad to see The Way, Way Back come to an end. These are characters I think many of us can identify with because as the film tagline deftly illustrates, “We’ve all been there.” Yes, we’ve all been there and hopefully most of us have found our way back.