The Way Way Back
Steve Carrell was on the money when he said the quality that attracted to him in The Way Way Back was similar to the one he saw in Little Miss Sunshine. Both are immensely likeable feel-good indie movies, strong on quirky characterisation and relatable insights but also equipped with a slightly superficial fantasy uplift element in their depiction of protagonists overcoming trials and tribulations. This kind of fare follows something of an indie dramedy template and The Way Way Back is well observed, unintrusively directed and populated by some wonderful performances. But it’s also a wee-bit over-recognisable.
Co-writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have successful dual careers as comedy performers, and their writing partnership stems from performing together at comedy club The Groundlings. The script for The Way Way Back had been kicking around since the mid ‘00s, but only finally went into production following the kudos and Oscar they received for adapting The Descendants with Alexander Payne. Payne is hard to beat with this kind of laugh/cry material, although he hasn’t really tapped the coming of age tale (that’s not really Election). Perhaps he knows how difficult it is to make a distinct mark on such stories; it would be easy to shower The Way Way Back with plaudits, yet it still feels like just another entry in a well-worn genre, complete with a summer park hearkening back to more louche ‘80s movies (tellingly, it was originally set in 1984). And Adventureland (although The Way Way Back is way better).
Duncan (Liam James) is an inexpressive and reserved teenager required to attend a Cape Cod summer break with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). He would much rather spend time with his dad, but is instead stuck with an a prick of a patriarchal figure (Carrell on sterling unsympathetic form) and a not-sister who can barely tolerate the sight of him (and who heaps abuse on him when in the company of her friends). Mum Pam is sympathetic, but she’s trying to fit into Trent’s world and with his loud and uncouth friends (Allison Janney as sousy gossip Bettty, Rob Corddry and Amand Peet as couple Kip and Joan). During the trip to there, he’s also had to content with Trent informing him he is a “3” on a scale of 1 to 10, which pretty much tells us all we need to know about Trent.
It’s a bleak set up, and we can feel Duncan’s desire to just want to crawl under a rock and die, beset by inherent adolescent awkwardness and quite awful adult company. James excels at tongue-tied discomfort, which means the movie doesn’t have to rely solely on the more experienced supporting performers to carry it. Eventually Duncan carves out his own niche and comfort zone, when the manager of the local water park Owen (Sam Rockwell, exuding charisma levels on a part with the average Sam Rockwell performance) takes him under his wing. Invited into this company (which includes Faxon and Rash who are both effortlessly funny, particularly Rash as the balding and beleaguered lost property guy, and Maya Rudolph as Caitlyn, Owen’s possibly maybe). There is also Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, currently in Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, but who has been giving note perfect performances ever since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the older girl willing to given Duncan the time of day and on whom he develops a crush.
As such, this strays into fantasy territory unfamiliar to the typical introverted teenager; the coolest, most outgoing guy (Owen) in town for some reason takes to you; the more mature girl actually has time for you (most unlikely of all is her “You just surprised me” when she recounts why she recoiled from his attempts to kiss her); it’s wish-fulfilment confectionary with an indie tag, and recognisable names flock to it as it offers a bit of character meat and substance in contrast to the big budget bill-payers. The Way Way Back is warm-hearted and breezy, but it’s also quite shameless in milking its audience (just like Oscar darling Little Miss Sunshine; this, as essentially a teen angst movie, was unlikely to reach the same level of exposure).
Carrell, Rockwell and Janney have the showiest roles, and they just need to be wound up and let loose (I was surprised to hear Rockwell say this kind of spontaneity doesn’t come naturally, as it’s the way I typically imagine him from his roles; he also said he was channelling Bill Murray in Meatballs). Carrell in particular, can’t be underpraised for essaying an unreconstituted prick. Corddry and Peet don’t get much to do other than behave coarsely, Rudolph is at her most sympathetically lovable, while River Alexander, as Betty’s other offspring Peter, is sure to win a rash of exhuberant child parts on the back of this (the sequence in which Owen admires Peter’s eye patch is a particularly rich exchange, where Alexander actually manages to wrest the focus from Rockwell).
The Way Way Back was a Sundance hit, snapped up by Fox Searchlight and went on to be the biggest commercial success of the screenings there that year. It’s funny, touching and shrewdly calculated; Faxon and Rash could probably ease full time into writing-directing on the back of it, should they so wish (next up is The Heart with Kristen Wiig), but I don’t think there’s much danger of them doing so exclusively given their natural yen for performance.