The Way Way Back (4 out of 5 Stars)
Directed and Written by: Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (wrote The Descendants)
Starring: Steve Carell, Liam James, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, and Allison Janney
Films of this nature are highly scrutinized, and the poster and advertising set the stage for this. The poster on the The Way Way Back say from the studio who bought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. This film is like both of these movies, and even stars some of the same people, yet in this Steve Carell is a bit of a dick and married to the person who played his sister in Little Miss Sunshine, and Allison Janney doesn't love dogs she just is too involved in everyone's business, and sexually repressed.
People are going to cal this film this years "insert indie dramedy" or compare it to Adventurland and there is problem that takes away from the spirit of the creativity of this actual film. I could go on and on forever about the comparison of film, but and while Back has those similar threads its film with a fun unique feel. The film once again like this years Oblivion has similar tropes to the "Little Miss Sunshine" film, but is also a great film in its own right.
Back centers around Duncan (James) who is heading to a Summer vacation home with his mother Pam (Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Carell), and Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). As soon as this foursome get out of their car they are greeted by Trent's neigh Pam, who gets too close too soon, possibly because she is recently divorced, but she also spits out truth about her sons lazy eye, her gay ex husband and much more within the first five minutes of meeting her. As the Summer progresses Duncan can't help but feel out of place; he does not feel comfortable surrounded by all these people especially Trent who he feels mistreats him, and his mother.
Duncan eventually meets and is befriended by Owen who owns a water park called Water Wizz. After the two meet over Pac Man there is an instant mentor friend relationship which develops as Duncan taks on a job at the water park, and realizes that people care about him. Duncan is lost and finds solace in the world of misfits who go to, and and work at the water park, including the films writer director pair, Faxon and Rash who are incredibly funny. As much as the film explores Duncan's development, the film is about maturation of adulthood, and relationships from all levels.
One thing I respect about this movie is the way Faxon and Rash as first time directors, and now more experience screen writers crafted this world. One of the interesting things about the film, is that as you sit through the film you wonder if this was meant to be set in the 80s with the music (REO Speedwagon), the fact that it centers around a water park, the station wagon, and much more. Yet the great thing about this film is that themes of divorce, isolation, and friendship transcend the concept of decades.
Faxon and Rash who co-wrote (and each won Oscars) with Alexander Payne for The Descendants, created something less melodramatic, and more earnest. This script hits the write notes, never feeling heavy handed or shoving the emotional journey down your throat. The moments they created within their script then directed within the big screen felt natural, free flowing, and never out place. Their script may fit a bit of a formula, but their direction along with the wistful emotions they evoke of nostalgia negate any lazy aspect of the film.
One of the key things to highlight within the film is the truly great ensemble assembled within this film, Carell, Collette, Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rockwell, Rash, Faxon, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, AnnaSophia Robb, and Liam James. The young actors who play the water park regulars also add some entertainment. On paper this cast is a dream comedy cast, and they flex their dramatic muscles of course too.
In a Freaky Friday world Steve Carell plays a dick, and Sam Rockwell plays the good guy. For those familiar with both of their work their pattern has been the exact opposite for most of their careers. Do they pull it off? Rockwell steals the film channeling some great Bill Murray (from his own mouth in interviews). Rockwell is fantastic in this film as Owen who has a bit of Peter Pan syndrome, never wanting to grow up as he works at Water Wizz, but meeting Duncan helps him to realize he's the adult and he becomes a pseudo father figure to him. Carell's Trent is simply put a dick, and Carell steps out of the "nice guy" roles and makes you hate him more than ever before, pulling off a solid transformation.
While Rockwell gives the best overall adult performance in the film, the scene-stealer is of course Allison Janney, her one liners are some of the funniest in the film. Pam's character recovering from her divorce is just willing to say things how they are, but as you learn her veneer is a mask for loneliness you feel the character has fully formed, and you see this land many of the "adults" have made is a mask to hide from the real world.
At the center of all of this is Duncan, and Liam James starts this character from scratch; he is quiet, and watches as the world around him forms. As he starts to run away from these adults who do not have their stuff together (but think they do); he runs to a world of adults who find solace in one another, and soon Duncan begins to grow on his own. Susanna states "This is Spring Break for adults." James is a solid younger actor, he gives the good as he begins to grow up himself, yet wanting his mother she does not need to settle for happiness.
Back was sold for the most money ever at Sundance, 10 million dollars, and the film had a production budget of only four million. That's pretty impressive. While the film does not reinvent the wheel, there is something special and fun about the story told here. You can feel the personal touch from both Rash and Faxon, which make this movie beyond like able. To me this is the combination of an homage/passion project, which make some of the best films. Combined with these elements the cast is one of the best I have seen in a long time, making this one of the most enjoyable films of the year.