Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: The Way Way Back

It’s been an interesting year at the theater and not necessarily in a good way.  To say that the slate has been pretty lean would be an understatement.  There have been some big blockbusters that I’ve really enjoyed (Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness) and a few pleasant surprises (The Conjuring, Warm Bodies), but I had yet to find something that I thought would receive awards season recognition.  That is, until I saw The Way Way Back, a small in budget and scale, but large in scope coming-of-age story that masterfully tells a coming-of-age story set against a jumbled mass of complex relationships.

The plot of the movie focuses on Duncan (Liam James), an awkward teen who is forced to take a summer trip with his single mother (Toni Collette) and her douche bag boyfriend (Steve Carell).  Thrust into a beach community that more closely resembles a camp for 40-somethings engaging in social debauchery, Duncan befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell) - a local who works at a nearby water park, and with his help ventures outside his comfort zone to learn more about himself and about those in his life.

Any discussion of this film must begin and end with Sam Rockwell.  He is that good in this movie.  In a lot of ways, his performance is set up by the dour oppressive atmosphere established by James’ timid and awkward Duncan and Steve Carell’s spot on portrayal of a man who can best be described as miserable and selfish.  The strength of those two performances allows Rockwell to absolutely deliver as the sarcastic but affable manager of the Water Wizz.  Every moment that he is onscreen feels like a breath of fresh air and the snappy delivery with which he speaks his comedic lines picks up the pace of the film immediately.  The contrast between his character and Carell’s is one of the key elements that makes this movie really pop.

Still, the success of this movie ultimately rests on the shoulders of one of the youngest cast members - Liam James.  I have no idea what kind of actor James is, as I’ve never seen him in anything else, but he marvelously captures the intense timidity and suffocating awkwardness of Duncan.  His character is a most sympathetic figure that puts himself in cringe-inducing moments and it’s this quality that draws you in emotionally and makes the payoff feel so cathartic. 

Toni Collette plays off of this character well as Duncan’s mother Pam.  Collette plays a good-natured but damaged single mother – a role that she is quite familiar with and quite adept at playing.  She’s both maddening and endearing, adding a significant layer to this coming-of-age narrative.  The other woman in Duncan’s life, AnnaSophia Robb (as love interest Susana) also shows well in this film, because her character acts as a great contrast to James’ as one who is dynamic, outgoing, and expressive.

As for the rest of the cast, the work is truly top solid from top to bottom.  The crew at the Water Wizz led by Maya Rudolph and Nat Faxon represent the heart of the film and their scenes represent some of the most joyous in the film.  The group of adults that revolve around Carell’s Trent – including Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and Allison Janney – while not as impressive as Rudolph and Faxon, do a nice job of portraying manic, morally decayed, forty-somethings lost in a sea of their respective mid-life crises.  And in doing so, they close the loop on the recurring theme of contrasts that permeates this film.

With the way this film is treated and the quality of the finished product, it comes as no surprise that writer and director are one in the same.  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash collectively wear both hats and it’s immediately evident that the creative team is invested in this intensely personal narrative that addresses universal themes.  Any film that gets you to care about its characters tends to be a good one.  While any film that gets you to not only care but also to relate to the characters almost always is a great one.  The Way Way Back is definitely closer to the latter bucket.

In a sea of movies loaded with big explosions, wild gunplay, and fisticuffs, The Way Way Back is that rare summer movie that feels intimate, authentic, and personal.  The nature of the film suggests that it does not need to be seen on the big screen, but it is a very good movie that deserves to be seen in a big-feel setting.  Good for a date night or just hanging with friend, I would highly recommend this movie to one and all; even those whose taste skew towards pure action.  There is a little something for everyone in this movie and will leave you feeling like you got your money’s worth.  Without a doubt, The Way Way Back is one of my favorite movies of the year.

Standout Performance:  Sam Rockwell - by a landslide.


Post a Comment