Release: Friday, July 5, 2013 (limited)
The screenwriters for The Descendants return to write and direct this incredibly satisfying coming-of-age story about an awkward teen and his adventures at the local water park as he seeks refuge from his painful family life. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash pen another script which has become primarily responsible for winning people over left and right — myself included. Not only do the pair come up with characters who are believable, flesh-and-blood, and, for the most part, easily likable, but they harmonize comedic and dramatic elements just so that the film maintains an equilibrium of being wholly enjoyable from start to finish, without ever becoming too silly or too melodramatic for it’s own good. This is a remarkably good film for first-time directors and their writing abilities do not fail here either.
At the center of attention is Duncan (Liam James) and his struggle to fit in with anyone, even with those in his own family. His mom (Toni Collette) is now seeing a man with whom Duncan frequently butts heads. Trent is practically the antithesis of who we’re used to seeing Steve Carell play, even if we’ve gotten glimpses of his ability to be a complete dolt in previous roles (Michael Scott, anyone?), and more often than not, it is Trent who is making life miserable for Duncan. He asks what Duncan thinks of himself as a person on a scale of 1-10, and when the kid reluctantly responds with “a six,” Trent offers his thoughts: “Well, I think you’re a three.” There are other factors, too. His sister, Steph (Zoe Levin) is a spoiled brat who can’t stand being around Duncan for longer than she has to. His mom is a little more neutral, even though she can never quite get a good read on her son’s mood at times.
Regardless of appearances, and despite the fact that Trent insists on exerting total control over what Duncan “can” and/or “should” do here, this is Duncan’s story, told from his perspective, and we can only look on and silently cheer as he breaks down the barriers and makes his own way in becoming a young adult in spite of the circumstances.
One afternoon Duncan is off biking around trying to forget the latest drama around Trent’s beach house, when he comes across the Water Wizz Waterpark, and decides to explore what’s going on there by entering through an unlocked employee gate. Not long after he bumps into the same guy whom he had run into a day or so before at a pizza parlor, playing Pac Man by himself and rambling on about setting a personal high score. He introduces himself at the water park as Owen, and the two are fast friends. Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes an immediate notice of Duncan’s social anxieties, and aims to fix this as quickly and hilariously as possible.
The second act of the film, then, blossoms into a fun-filled montage of situations in which Duncan sheds his introversion and starts to come into his own. A lot of the process is owed to Rockwell’s wonderful performance as this gregarious park manager. I’ve been a moderate Rockwell fan for awhile, but nothing he’s done so far compares to the energy he emits in this little summer indie. Both Faxon and Rash have lesser but still funny roles as other Water Wizz employees — Rash as a bug-eyed, disillusioned employee who is unfortunately also a germ-o-phobe. It may be argued, though, that Rockwell is the best there is to offer in this film — a beacon of light among other solid performances from this ensemble cast.
What makes The Way, Way Back such an engrossing adventure, aside from Rockwell’s irresistible charm and the brilliant way James carries himself as the awkward teenager, is the secrecy of Duncan’s quasi-employment at the water park. After his first venture out to Water Wizz, Owen offers him a job “cleaning up puke” and doing other related, otherwise unappealing tasks. He commutes back and forth to the park on a hot pink bike, and is able to avoid saying anything about it when Trent and his mom ask where he’s been all day. He’s somewhat successful in keeping this adventure to himself; that is, until he attracts the attention of the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Equally awkward and out of sync with what’s going on in the world around her, she is able to extract a few sentences from Duncan each time they meet and this makes for a very sweet and believable relationship, perhaps made even more so because it’s not perfect.
I’ve had a very hard time pinning down the one creative element that made this film destined to become a classic, but maybe that’s just it: imperfection (I’m not talking about behind-the-scenes things like writing/directing/production values, etc). The human relationships — all of them — are all flawed, some in minor ways and others in more obvious and painful ways. One is flawed to a degree that has our protagonist questioning why his mom makes the decisions she makes. Duncan’s relationship with his mother is slightly flawed because he assumes he knows a lot about the goings-on of her life (it becomes clear late in the movie that he doesn’t). He assumes Owen won’t know what he’s going through because he’s just a park manager who seems to be always having fun (fortunately this is also an incorrect assumption). Trent’s neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) is a fun-loving party-girl. But she’s in her forties and single. The fact that the movie is filled with flaws and wrongdoings makes the overall product ironically perfect. Or at least, something close to it.
On top of that, the movie is set in a beautiful location and the use of a water park makes for some interesting visuals and plot developments. That, and, well. . water slides are the shit.
The Way, Way Back ultimately benefits from a great cast putting on great performances in conjunction with a strong screenplay and interesting setting. I could name at least a dozen coming-of-age tales that have been in varying degrees stimulating enough, but this basically puts on a clinic in terms of showing why that type of story has a place in the film industry. Thanks to Faxon and Rash’s sensitive direction, you can no longer say that these types of films are a dime a dozen. Or maybe you still can, but you cannot include this movie in that category. It is a much more matured film that absolutely deserved its wide release.
hard impossible to imagine this movie not getting any nominations come February 2014.
Recommendation: The Perks of Being A Wallflower of 2013. Even if that’s not my original thought, I love that idea. Both films feature a quiet protagonist who, about halfway through the film, really develops into a lovable, unforgettable (read: young) central character who benefits from the help of his elders. If you loved Perks, this should be what’s next on your list (of indie films, anyway).
Running Time: 103 mins.
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