Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Way Way Back

Mel’s Cine-Files: Summer Delight

By Melissa Agar

The Way Way Back (Fox Searchlight, 2013) – Directed and Written By: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Cast: Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Anna Sophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peel, and Zoe Levin. Color, 103 minutes.

The summer film season has become as predictable lately as, well, a summer movie. Looking across the slate of any given summer, you will find at least one of the following: a bloated and unnecessary sequel, a superhero franchise movie, a raunchy comedy, an animated movie for the kids, the surprise hit that no one saw coming, and the surprise flop everyone thought would rule the box office. One of my favorite summer movies, though, is the little independent comedy that quietly plugs along all summer earning critical adoration and getting respectable box office traction based on word of mouth. Ever since My Big Fat Greek Wedding proved that small budget films could still do healthy summer box office numbers, these quirky little films have strolled into theaters during the summer months to offer a breath of fresh air for filmgoers who are growing weary of explosions and superheroes and fart jokes. The fresh air that The Way Way Back brings to multiplexes as the summer season winds down is a welcome relief indeed.

This sweet, funny coming of age film comes from Faxon and Rash, the duo behind The Descendants. Faxon and Rash (whom television viewers may recognize as Ben from Fox’s sadly cancelled Ben and Kate, and Dean Pelton from NBC’s Community respectively) wrote and directed the story of Duncan (James), a socially awkward 14-year-old, who is being forced to spend the summer with his mother (Collette) at the beachfront vacation home of her odious new boyfriend, Trent (Carell). As Trent passively aggressively humiliates Duncan, including a painful opening scene where he tells the boy that he would rate him a three on a scale of one to 10, Duncan seeks escape, finally finding it at a local water park run by charming slacker Owen (Rockwell). Owen hires Duncan to work at the park and takes the boy under his wing. Through working at “Water Wizz,” Duncan begins to emerge from his shell and find the courage to stand up to Trent’s bullying.

As with The Descendants, one of the best films of 2011, Faxon and Rash create vivid yet relatable characters with great depth and heart. A character like Owen or Betty (Janney), the drunken divorcee next door who has no qualms sharing incredibly personal details about herself and her family with complete strangers, could be broad stereotypes going for cheap laughs, but with Faxon’s and Rash’s deft touch, they gain an emotional core that allows the film to maintain a core of reality amidst the eccentricity. The leads, too, are given meaty work on which to chew, particularly James and Collette. James spends a great deal of time largely silent as he suffers humiliation and witnesses the boorish behavior of Trent, his daughter Steph (Levin), and his obnoxious friends Kip (Corddry) and Joan (Peet). James says a lot with his eyes and the set of his mouth, and the audience acutely feels the pain his Duncan feels as he watches his mother be pulled into this world that clearly is set up to hurt her. It would be easy for Duncan’s silent awkwardness to come across as bratty and petulant, but James keeps Duncan grounded in sensitivity.

Collette, of course, seems to have made a career lately of playing struggling single moms in search of a better life for her and her kid. Whether we’re talking The Sixth Sense or About a Boy, Collette has brought many plucky single moms to the silver screen in the past decade or so. There is something about Collette that seems to engender sympathy in audiences. Like young James, she has an expressive face that can communicate volumes with a simple look. Her Pam has perhaps the biggest roller coaster journey throughout the film as she rides the highs of her new relationship and balances that with her confusion over Duncan’s misery and mysterious absences. (He doesn’t tell his mother about his job at the water park. He just disappears every morning and comes home at night.) As she begins to realize that her new relationship may not be everything she thought, Collette finds the balance between despair and determination. The audience roots for Pam and Duncan to find their way back to each other emotionally thanks to the deft work of the actors.

Faxon’s and Rash’s script knows when to use dialogue and when to let the silence inform the story. It also creates some beautiful relationships between characters. The scenes between Owen and Duncan form the core of the film as the relationship helps inspire Duncan to shake off the shackles of his awkwardness. He also gathers strength from his friendship with Susanna (Robb), Betty’s seemingly sullen daughter who is intrigued by Duncan and finds a kindred spirit. Owen and Susanna help Duncan find his courage, and the boy who sulks in the way back of Trent’s vintage station wagon in the opening credits is not the same boy who sits in the same seat as the closing credits start rolling.

In a perfect world, the actors who populate this film would be huge movie stars. As I watched, I kept wondering why Rockwell in particular isn’t a bigger star. As soon as his Owen hits the screen, he brings a vibrant energy to the film that clearly signals how vital he will be to breathing Duncan to life. He has a sort of easy swagger and a terrific chemistry with everyone he encounters on screen, especially Caitlin (Rudolph), an exasperated water park employee who is frustrated by Owen’s slacker approach to running the park but at the same time is clearly attracted to his easy energy. Rockwell has more ease and assurance onscreen than many of those headlining big summer blockbusters (looking at you, Arnie Hammer); he deserves to be a much bigger star.

Ultimately, The Way Way Back is the kind of summer film I have come to depend on over the years. The sort of quiet, character driven story offered here is the tonic needed after witnessing countless explosions and fights all summer long. It is a film that trusts in its audience’s intelligence, allowing us to draw our own inferences and conclusions rather than beating us over the head with jokes or endless exposition. Yes, The Way Way Back is terrifically funny, but it also has a terrific heart and soul with believable characters and bittersweet situations that all add up to a beautiful little movie. It was the perfect way to end the summer season. 

Grade: A

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