Friday, July 19, 2013

The Way, Way Back: A droll little gem

The Way, Way Back (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexual candor, mild profanity and brief drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.19.13

We don’t necessarily realize this right away, but the battle lines are drawn in this film’s opening scene: War has been declared, and no quarter will be given.

Having enjoyed a delightful day together, which has lent weight to their growing
fondness for each other, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Duncan (Liam James)
return home to a chilly reception from the aggressive adult that this boy has grown to
loathe: the bully who has become his divorced mother's constant companion. And,
just like that, the day's magic evaporates...
Sadly, our adversaries are badly mismatched, which the villain of this piece knows full well. And he’s perfectly willing to reduce his opponent to emotional rubble.

The Way, Way Back is one of the best coming-of-age tales ever caught on film: a captivating blend of snarky comedy and heartbreaking pathos that evokes pleasant memories of Summer of ’42, Stand by Me and other classics of the genre. This project is cast to perfection, with every actor — in parts large or small — making the most of the sharp script from writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Very few films leave us wanting more, as the screen darkens, the lights come up, and we regretfully abandon our seats. I didn’t want this one to end. Indeed, I wanted to watch it again, if only to catch some of the dialogue that was buried beneath the laughter coming from last week’s delighted preview audience.

The action takes place in the summer beach community of Marshfield, Mass., and the surrounding area on Boston’s South Shore. Although the setting is contemporary — only because we spot smart phones and ear buds — the locale feels oddly timeless, as is appropriate for the narrative. Youthful angst knows no specific era; the desperation of adolescents struggling for maturity has been relevant ever since Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

This anywhen atmosphere is further amplified by Water Wizz, the somewhat dilapidated water park that plays such an important role in these events. (It’s no set; Water Wizz is a fully operational, mom-and-pop operation in East Wareham, Mass.) Back in the day, Hollywood sometimes used traveling carnivals and circuses as settings for coming-of-age sagas; fading theme parks seem to have become the modern equivalent.

I’d love to see this new film on a double bill with 2009’s under-rated Adventureland, which has a similarly nostalgic vibe, although its protagonist is a bit older. Now, that would be a grand night at the movies.


Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged along for a summer “vacation” at the beach house owned by his divorced mother Pam’s (Toni Collette) overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). To say that Trent is a calculating bully would be understatement; he views Duncan as a potential impediment toward his pursuit of Pam — an absolutely accurate appraisal — and snatches every opportunity to crush the boy’s already fragile spirit.

Carell should play bad guys more often; he’s really good at it. We want to smack the condescending smirk off Trent’s face the moment we meet him, and it just gets worse. Carell modulates his line deliveries so that only Duncan detects the underlying disdain; everybody else in the room believes that Trent is trying his best to “get along” with the “obstinate” boy.

The dialogue is note-perfect; Faxon and Rash have an almost scary talent for capturing the way cheerfully ruthless adults can wreak havoc with an adolescent’s disorienting emotions. The verisimilitude likely results from an author’s core mantra, to “write what you know.” Rash claims, in the press notes, that he actually endured what became this movie’s opening scene, when his mother’s second husband played a similar head-game with him.

No wonder so much of this film’s anguish feels genuine.

But that’s not to say that Faxon and Rash have delivered a downer: far from it. True, Duncan’s plight initially gets worse, as he’s surrounded by the neighbors in this beach resort — well known to Trent — who take this setting as an excuse for spring-break-ish hedonism. But the filmmakers ensure that we share Duncan’s view that these adults are behaving very, very badly ... and that Pam, in her own way desperate enough to go along, is making a massive mistake.

But Duncan can’t articulate his own feelings, let alone find a way to offer relationship advice to his mother.

Just about the point we’re ready to die from the agony of sharing this poor kid’s worst nightmare — each of Trent’s orchestrated humiliations a bit worse than the previous one — things improve. A bit. Maybe. Probably.

Summertime next-door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), an often inebriated free spirit with absolutely no filter, is a hot mess whose husband deserted her and their three kids. One of the latter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), is a mite older than Duncan, but not so much that she’s unattainable. She also obviously understands the heartbreak of divided parents; like Pam, Susanna compensates unwisely, in this case by hitching her fragile psyche to the local “mean girls” led by Trent’s bitchy daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin).

The immediate circle of adults is completed by Trent’s longtime friends, Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), a wealthy couple whose sybaritic tendencies clearly poison the group dynamic. Joan is just as condescendingly unpleasant toward Pam, if a bit more artfully, as Trent is to Duncan. Peet is marvelously waspish, with Joan easily reducing Pam to deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty. We can’t help but shiver.

Duncan finally — mercifully! — finds respite at Water Whiz, where he comes under the perceptive eye of the park’s gregarious manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell). Although manifesting the persona of a goofball motormouth, Owen recognizes a desperate misfit going under for the third time. A bond is struck: initially fragile, built on Duncan’s failure to recognize when Owen is joshing him, but soon much, much stronger.

Owen’s carefree manner notwithstanding, he’s smart enough to understand the need to proceed very cautiously with his new young friend.

Sadly, though, Owen doesn’t take similar care when dealing with Caitlin (the always effervescent Maya Rudolph), an employee who obviously likes him, but wishes that he’d fer-gawd’s-sake grow up, already.

Few young actors could survive being surrounded by such an ensemble cast of scene-stealers, but James rises to the occasion. That’s not merely impressive; it’s essential. This is Duncan’s story, and James is in virtually every scene. He perfectly captures Duncan’s awkward helplessness: the boy’s inability to fence with a cruel authority figure — Trent — who outmatches him in every respect.

James even delivers silence unerringly, his expressive face an often tortured tapestry of misery, his words and emotions so bottled up that he can’t get anything out. It’s a genuinely sublime performance ... and oh, how we feel this boy’s pain.

Rockwell is a similar revelation. Although often typecast as a loutish jerk, thanks to varied efforts such as Choke and Seven Psychopaths, those of us who admired his one-man tour-de-force in 2009’s Moon know that he’s capable of much, much better. His work here fits that rarefied bill; his reading of Owen is rich and subtle, the character an engaging blend of gentle “tough love” and spontaneous acts of hilarious irresponsibility.

And yes, Owen uncorks a seemingly endless stream of Faxon and Rash’s hilarious one-liners, all delivered with impeccable timing.

Collette, who always brings her A-game, gives James a run for his money, as this story’s most tragic figure. Pam is caught between what she wants, and what she believes she must settle for: a dynamic most of us recognize all too well. Watch Collette’s face, as Pam struggles over who to side with, during Trent’s constant verbal duels with Duncan; she’s a master of subtlety.

Janney is a hoot as Betty, the archetype of the neighbor who doesn’t understand boundaries, and whose candor forces everything about her to bleed into everybody else’s life. And yet, her own personal agonies notwithstanding, Betty is the most honest person in the noxious little group that Trent assembles ... and, in her own way, probably the kindest.

Robb deftly handles her quieter role as Susanna: an island of calm in this roiling ocean of uncontrolled emotions. River Alexander is a hoot as Peter, Susanna’s younger brother, a cocky preteen trying to cope with how his mother fusses over his lazy eye. (Betty’s ill-advised solution: a garish eye patch.)

Finally, Faxon and Rash give themselves small but memorable acting roles as Water Wizz employees: the former as Roddy, who controls access to the park’s signature slide tunnel; the latter as the nerdy Lewis, who staffs a sales shed that nobody visits.

My one complaint: Although Rob Simonsen’s underscore is reasonably well employed, the intrusive pop songs are bad choices that work against the film’s tone. They sound like weak Paul Simon imitations: mawkish and awkwardly sentimental, when the story clearly demands edgier material.

But that’s a small thing.

Its many delights as a successful film aside, I also must mention that The Way, Way Back boasts its own underdog back-story. Faxon and Rash met in 1999 as members of the Los Angeles-based Groundlings Theater, whose graduates include Paul Reubens, Kristin Wiig, Will Ferrell and this film’s Maya Rudolph. The two began writing what became The Way, Way Back almost a decade ago, and their script eventually wound up on the 2007 “Black List,” an annual compendium of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays.

Then they wrote and won an Academy Award for 2011’s The Descendants. Thus armed with the clout to revive their earlier project, they’ve made their directorial debut with The Way, Way Back. Given the on-screen results, they’re clearly as skilled at extracting engaging performances, as they are at putting choice words in their characters’ mouths.

This one’s a treasure. See it quickly, before friends spoil any of its many pleasures ... and before media hype blows it out of proportion.

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