THE WAY, WAY BACK
****1/2 (out of 5)
July 19, 2013
Steve Carell as TRENT
Toni Collette as PAM
Allison Janney as BETTY
AnnaSophia Robb as SUSANNA
Sam Rockwell as OWEN
Maya Rudolph as CAITLIN
Liam James as DUNCAN
Rob Corddry as KIP
Amanda Peet as JOAN
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Keep your eye on “The Way, Way Back” as we move out of the summer, past the autumn doldrums and into awards season. This is one of those movies that will have legs into nominations. It will likely miss many major awards, but keep a lookout for screenplay and ensemble nominations for “The Way, Way Back.”
And if that doesn’t happen, then shame on those making the nominations. Because the movie deserves it.
“The Way, Way Back” is both extremely simple and quite complex. On the surface, it’s a coming of age story about a 14-year-old boy named Duncan (Liam James) who is stuck at the vacation home of his mother’s overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). While trying to escape his own family drama of a mother desperately trying to find a stable relationship and a would-be step-sister who embodies all the nasty elements of an entitled teenage girl, Duncan finds solace at a local water park. He soon develops stronger bonds with his co-workers at the park, finding a home away from his non-home.
“The Way, Way Back” is made by the people who gave us “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Descendants.” Like those movies (more so for “Little Miss Sunshine” than the latter), “The Way, Way Back” deals with some pretty heavy emotional moments. However, it never gets too draining as potential award films can do. Instead, it makes for quite an uplifting movie.
In this sense, the film faces the danger of becoming a cliche. What it has to say is the stuff of schmaltzy Disney movies, with a message of being yourself and finding your own way in life. However, the film never becomes corny. The characters’ actions – both good and bad – seem wholly authentic, even if they aren’t the first time you’ve seen this happen in a film.
The cast is exceedingly strong in this film, possibly stronger than what you see in summer tent poles like “Man of Steel” or the like. Liam James, whom many might recognize as the young version of Shawn Spencer on the TV series “Psych,” plays Duncan with the awkwardness of a 14 year old but without the caustic nature that happens with teenage characters.
The adults in the cast are strong as well, with Toni Collette being very generous in her scenes with fellow actors and not trying to upstage anyone. Allison Janney provides some hilarious comic relief as the overly friendly neighbor whose daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) develops a special bond with Duncan. And of course, Sam Rockwell hits it out of the park with a role that seems to be just a standard go-to character for him. However, he takes the smart-talking boss at the water park and gives him a real humanity behind the wise-cracking facade. There always seems to be a possibility of something sinister behind him, but he’s a teddy bear that is warm and inviting, and ultimately a protector for Duncan.
However, the real surprise in this film comes from the performance of Steve Carell, who has made a career out of playing the nice guy. As much as I enjoy Carell as an actor, I’ve always wanted to see him stretch a bit, and here is his chance. His character of Trent is a bona fide asshole, which isn’t terribly unique for this type of film.
But it’s not the skeleton of the character of Trent that works; rather it’s Carell’s delivery. Instead of being a beer-guzzling, obnoxious, grown-up bully, Carell plays Trent as smooth. He plays him as the nice guy doing mean things. There’s a subtle manipulation about him that makes the character extra unappealing. I knew many step parents to my friends as I grew up, and this was not an uncommon character: the otherwise nice guy who has trouble adjusting to the extra child in the relationship that gets in the way of the physical relationship with the other parent.
In a summer plagued with massive films with huge budgets and often disappointing returns, “The Way, Way Back” is a nice gem to find.