The Way Way Back

By on July 27, 2013
The Way Way Back

“The Way Way Back” is the much-anticipated follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Descendants” from the writing team of Nat Faxon (“Ben & Kate”) and Jim Rash (“Community”), who also take the directing reins here for the first time. In addition, they also co-star alongside an impressive cast that includes Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph, and Rob Corddry.

mark'smoviesHowever, the main focus here is the character Duncan, played by “The Killing” co-star Liam James, and the various relationships he develops amongst the residents/fellow vacationers in Cape Cod, where he and his family are staying over the summer. Chief among them is next-door neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, aka young Carrie Bradshaw on “The Carrie Diaries”), the slightly older daughter of the jovial, ever-blitzed Betty (Janney), with whom Duncan develops a romance of sorts, as each comes to recognize their outsider tendencies.

Based in part on Rash’s own experiences adjusting to life with his new stepdad- played here by Carell, in a decidedly out-of-character role as a mean-spirited, roguish sort- the film is essentially a coming-of-age tale, along the same lines as “Dazed and Confused” and “Adventureland,” only minus all the stoner qualities, for the most part. (Here, it’s the parents that partake, not the teens.) Although ostensibly set in the modern day, it could easily pass for a film set in the 70s or early 80s, save the odd appearance of cell phones and iPods.

This is all clearly intentional, as the film is peppered with old-school music (REO Speedwagon, INXS, Robert Palmer, Mr. Mister) and pop culture touchstones like “Pac-Man” and “Star Wars.” In addition, the setting is sort of stuck in the past and seems like it was frozen in time to a certain extent, particularly the various beach houses and the water park around which most of the film revolves.

At first, Duncan hates the place, but upon discovering said water park, he develops a sort of mentor-type relationship with the park’s manager, Owen (Rockwell), a wisecracking sort that is a bit frozen in time himself as a sort of perennial teenager in spirit. While he might come up short managing the park, Owen does manage to coax Duncan out of his shell over the course of the film, with the park’s various denizens becoming a sort of extended family for Duncan as he takes a job working there, unbeknownst to his real family.

Meanwhile, his mom, Pam (Collette) struggles with her relationship with Trent (Carell), as she begins to suspect he and gal pal Joan (Peet) are possibly more than just friends- something her son is all too aware of as being true. At the same time, stepsister Steph (Zoe Levin) is constantly giving Duncan grief, along with Susanna, who seems distant from her and the other girls her age. These two loners develop a friendship through their mutual not fitting in, much to Steph’s chagrin.

That’s really about it, but it’s enough. This is one of those rare films that puts you right in the mix of a whole myriad of characters and by the end, you feel like you know every one, as if you have become their friends as well. Like “Dazed” and “Adventureland,” as well as such classic films like “American Graffiti” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Rash and Faxon really create an entire world here, one that feels authentic and real. Even the supporting characters make their presence known, and it doesn’t hurt that the film is perfectly cast, even when it seems like it shouldn’t be that way, such as with Carell or the oft-stoic Janney. Janney in particular high-jacks nearly every scene she’s in, making you wonder why she doesn’t do more comedic roles.

For my money, though, it’s Rockwell that walks off wholesale with the film. He’s long been doing some of the strongest, most underrated work in Hollywood for many a “Moon” (see what I did there?), and it’s high time he got some credit for it- not to mention some better roles in better films. Maybe this one will do the trick. If you unfamiliar with his work, I highly recommend “Box of Moonlight,” the underrated “Safe Men” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” You’ll wonder why this guy doesn’t already have a shelf full of Oscars.

That’s not to say that relative newcomer Liam James doesn’t shine as well. Playing the straight guy is not always the most rewarding of roles, and it can be tough to stand out when you’ve got so many colorful characters pulling focus, but James nails it. He perfectly captures the awkwardness of being entirely the wrong age when everyone else seems the right one and the feeling of just never quite fitting in- until out of nowhere, you do. Witness his charming work in the break-dancing scene (get that, “Pop n’ Lock”!) or his frustration finally breaking free in a climactic scene at a party. This kid’s going places, as they say.

Hopefully “The Way Way Back” will clean up at the Oscars and what have you, come awards season, unless something or the other comes along to steal its thunder. It’s early in the year, so anything could happen, but this one seems like a frontrunner for my best of the year list, at the very least. In the meantime, if you like a good coming of age flick, you could do a whole lot worse- but you’d be hard pressed to do a lot better. I give it a well-deserved A+. It’s a modern day classic, and a can’t-miss all around.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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