The Way, Way Back

July 14, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

“The Way, Way Back” is a satisfying addition to the “indie” dramedy (heavy emphasis on the quotations marks) world of such films as “The Decedents,” “50/50,” “Adventureland” and “Juno.”  Some of these fall more on the comedy side and some more on the dramatic side.  Tonally, this film is most like “Little Miss Sunshine,” in both its strengths and weaknesses.  It strives for utter realism in moments of pain and poignancy but can only achieve its laugh out loud humor (and there is plenty of that) when it strays into caricature.  This is scarcely a criticism but more just an acknowledgement of the nature of the genre.  14 year old Duncan has been forced to go to the beach with his mother Pam, her horrible new boyfriend Trent and his teen daughter.  Duncan is awkward and shy and Trent is an ugly bully.  Duncan is miserable until he gets connected with a local water park and its manager, Owen.  Over the summer, he opens up, kisses a girl, finds happiness and some heartbreak along the way.  This could be terribly cliché, and it is in some ways.  However, it is also riotously funny and, at times, very moving.  Credit goes to the two screenwriters/directors, who also played characters in the movie: Jim Rash (known to all as Dean Pelton on “Community”) and Nat Faxon (that guy who looks vaguely familiar from a dozen films and TV shows, including “Zookeeper,” “Bad Teacher” and “Reno 911!”).  They seem to know better than most how to balance the comic absurdity with the dramatic elements of the film.    For the most part, the actors also do fine jobs.  Liam James (known mostly for his role as the young Sean Spencer on “Psych”) plays awkward teen very well and spends most of the film looking uncomfortable, at a loss for words and vaguely embarrassed for no reason.  As such, he is the perfect straight man for the other, larger than life characters to play off of.  To that end, we have an eccentric neighbor boy, the overly superficial pretty girls, the too-wise-for-her-years love interest, the boundary-less neighbor lady and the zany, irreverent (but wise) park manager.  None of these characters feel like real people but they do make for some great moments.  In particular, Sam Rockwell (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Moon”) shows his comic brilliance as Owen, the park manager, and steals every scene he is in.  Alison Janney (“West Wing”) does a more caustic version of her mother from “Juno” and has several great lines, including my favorite of the movie.  However, I think special credit goes to Steve Carell for his portrayal of Trent.  Against type, he also plays the straight man, here, and does so with gusto.  His character is such an asshole but such an utterly believable one.  He is what gives the film its emotional weight.  In fact, it is the most realistic characters that give the film any real footing.  Trent, Duncan and his mother, Pam, played beautifully by Toni Collette (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) are the real reasons to see this film.  All three characters are utterly believable and the pain generated between them is heartbreaking. Without that core story, this would be just another funny movie.

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