Sundance '13: Crowd-Pleasing Summer Vacation in 'The Way, Way Back'
by Ethan Anderton
January 25, 2013
Who wants to see Steve Carell be an insufferable jerk? That's just one of the many notable qualities in The Way, Way Back, a new indie comedy from actors and writers Nat Faxon ("Ben & Kate") and Jim Rash ("Community"), who are also making their directorial debut. Carell's role, though supporting, is where our story really begins as his chastising of his girlfriend's (Toni Collete) teenage son Duncan (Liam James) for being a 3 out of 10 as a person resonates with him and spitefully inspires a summer adventure that will change his life. And what better place to learn the ropes of life then a local waterpark with a colorful cast of supporting characters that includes a scene-stealing Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and more. Read on!
Duncan is a socially awkward, shy, teenage boy sometimes found poorly singing REO Speedwagon out loud. Shuffling around a summer house in a coastal town instead of hanging out with his real father for the break, Duncan is far from enjoying his stay, mostly because of Carell's overbearing, prickish behavior. Because of Duncan's introverted personality, not even the pretty girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) can help him enjoy the area. It doesn't help that her mother is a loudmouth lush always inviting herself to various get-togethers, even if she's hilariously played by Allison Janney.
But help comes when Duncan takes a mind-clearing ride on a girly bicycle to the nearby Water Wizz waterpark and strikes an unlikely friendship with the slacker manager Owen (Rockwell) who may have something to teach Duncan. Though he doesn't get his fast-talking jokes right away, Duncan gets on the same page after he starts working at the park. It's here that Liam James shines as we see Duncan blossom from this awkward kid to a very sociable young man. Slowly but surely he starts palling around with the other employees like the outgoing Roddy (Nat Faxon), who shows him the magic of ogling women on the waterslides to the strange Lewis (Jim Rash). It's the start of a beautiful friendship.
Liam James makes a breakthrough performance in this lead role, carrying his own weight with a supporting cast of experienced and seasoned actors (including award nominees). Carell's turn is infuriating because he's so good at being that meddling, jerkish father figure, and you just want him to be a better person. Collette's performance as a mother just trying to be happy, even if that means settling for less than she deserves is heartbreaking. But it's Rockwell who really steals the show with the right amount of laughs and emotional moments as a makeshift parent to Duncan. It's all a little too on-the-nose sometimes, but Faxon and Rash have made it feel special
What's great about The Way, Way Back is there's laughs to be had, but also some staggering drama, brought to life very well by James, Collette and Carell. Even the funny Rockwell has some tender moments with James and his on-again off-again girlfriend played by Rudolph. The actors continue to show why they so effortlessly move from comedy to drama, and the audience comes out the real winner. But what really helps is this script from Faxon and Rash, inspired by their childhoods, that feels so genuine, complete with great attention to detail, making us feel like we're on a summer vacation with these characters.
The Way, Way Back isn't anything groundbreaking or new, but it's the sharp writing and stellar comedic and dramatic performances from the entire cast that make it feel fresh. The film is laugh out loud funny, and will make you nostalgic for your teenage years, riding bikes around town and discovering more about yourself everyday. The Way, Way Back is a crowd-pleasing, indie comedy that clearly has a fondness for adolescence and a story that will bring warm feelings to adults and coming-of-age teenagers alike. It's a breath of fresh but familiar summer air that is bound for a lot of audience love. The Way, Way Back is more than satisfying and could end up being the feel-good film of the year.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 7.5 out of 10