From the Oscar-award winning writers of The Descendants (Best Adapted Screenplay, 2012) comes a feel good summer movie, with plenty of sensitive emotional punch. For The Way Way Back screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash also step up to the directing plate for the first time, and a fine job is done all round. The Descendants director Alexander Payne would be proud; his previous collaborators Faxon and Rash have created a focussed and well-realised family drama.
The protagonist, just one of many in this cast of believable characters, is Duncan (Liam James), a reserved and awkward 14 year old dragged along on a family holiday with his mother (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his daughter. Duncan is adjusting to his parents’ separation, and is far from coming to terms with his mother’s new partner. As asshole stepfather Trent, Carell opens the film by rating Duncan as 3 out of 10, and if this isn’t enough to turn the viewer against him, there’s plenty more to come.
Duncan escapes the painful society of Trent and his distracted mother in favour of local water park Water Wizz, which provides a new setting for the story’s engaging drama. There are plenty of eccentric characters to be found here, including Faxon and Rash in cameos (they’re the ones who look like it’s still the ‘70s), as well as star turns from Sam Rockwell (Moon, Seven Psychopaths) and Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids). The film admirably fights off similarity to Greg Mottola’s theme park-set Adventureland by plumping for heartwarming human relationships over comedy, rather than the other way around. The fact that the foremost relationship is between Duncan and Rockwell’s park owner Owen makes it all the more refreshing; The Way Way Back is unafraid to omit an out-an-out teen romance, though Duncan’s scenes with girl-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) are both natural and endearing.
As much praise is owed to The Way Way Back’s casting and acting as to its story. In The Descendants George Clooney was arguably cross-cast as Matt King, an unwanted husband devoid of a sex life, and similarly The Way Way Back’s script doesn’t give celebrated funny man Steve Carell so much as a bad dad joke in his role as Trent. Yet Carell continues to prove his salt with non-comic performance, and gracefully complements the work of actors playing characters we actually care about or like.
Allison Janney is Betty, a self-confessed alcoholic who lives next door to Duncan’s dysfunctional family – picture Janney’s appearance in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go extended to feature length. It may not be original, but Janney is as committed and hilarious as ever.
Collette is at first underwhelming as Duncan’s fearful mother, but as the narrative reaches its climax Collette’s performance ascends almost to the heights fans of her work in the Spielberg-produced TV series United States of Tara would expect. It’s Duncan whose character and experiences ground this story, and Liam James, resembling Collette’s US of Tara co-star Keir Gilchrist both physically and in his mannerisms, ably provokes the audience’s empathy throughout.
Despite the bittersweet tone The Way Way Back is a joy to watch, and its narrative arc is both convincing and pleasing. Conclusions are subtle or even minimal, making the film feel even more like a (slightly romanticised) slice of life. Faxon and Rash have won my heart and regained my attention, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll attract any awards nods in January.