Sean K. Cureton

An Inspiring and Substantial Anecdote of a Film

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on July 19, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Theatrical Poster

The Way, Way Back
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Academy Award winning writers of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, The Way, Way Back is a film that shares much of the eccentric warmth of Payne’s aforementioned film while choosing to focus on the kids instead of the parents this time around. Much of what made Payne’s The Descendants such a great film was its screenplay, written with as much emotional honesty and heartfelt integrity for its subjects without devolving into sentimental slush. Matt King in The Descendants was a widower who walked the edge of despair and crushing existential agony without ever admitting defeat, holding his head up high for the sake of his children. Likewise, in Faxon’s and Rash’s new film, their much younger subject Duncan (Liam James) is forced to cope with much of the same sort of anguish and heartbreak as his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) begins a relationship with a brutish new man named Trent (Steve Carell). Granted, The Way, Way Back is a different kind of film than The Descendants, but the dramatic looks offered in both films surrounding ordinary people coping with such perennial issues as mourning and coming of age are fundamentally the same in terms of approach and found comic value. Like The Descendants, The Way, Way Back is a film that earns its value through an honest portrayal of the human condition, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, and yet always communally reaffirming.

As was evidenced previously in their writing for The Descendants, Faxon and Rash know how to write a great comedy that doesn’t rely on superficial characters, sophomoric theatrics, or what’s worse, both. Instead, Faxon and Rash understand the complexities of a more affecting humor rooted in a distinctly human tedium and depression. When Duncan is struggling with his anger towards Trent, and is subsequently allowed to escape to the Never Never Land that is the Water Wizz water park inhabited by the effortlessly charming paternal stand-in Owen (Sam Rockwell), humor arises from an innate need to let go of those things that occupy so much of our time and energy, relieving stress if only for the moment. And yet the highs elicited by Rockwell’s inspired performance can only be allowed due to their distinct juxtaposition with the lows elicited by the tense and arduous scenes over breakfast and dinner held between Duncan, Pam, and Trent. A lot of human life is spent trying to coexist with people who are fundamentally incompatible with our own persons, which is why we seek out the Owens in our lives to reinvigorate and uplift us in our times of extreme duress and emotional upheaval. Faxon and Rash understand this, and use such a knowledge in order to tell a tale of adolescent angst that never feels dishonest, clichéd, or sentimentally convenient.

What’s more, The Way, Way Back is film populated by the sorts of multifaceted and fully realized characters that have become all too scarce in contemporary American cinema. Not only are Duncan, Pam, and Owen funny and unique protagonists within the film’s larger narrative, but the inclusion of such supporting characters as Jim Rash’s beleaguered Lewis as well as Allison Janney’s local lush and single mother of two Betty seem to boost the film’s overall impact astronomically. The Water Wizz theme park and surrounding East coast shore town is alive with its individual characters, each one of them unique, odd, and genuine in their own distinctive ways. Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry give a surprisingly affecting turn as the couple Kip and Joan, and Maya Rudolph is wonderful as Owen’s love interest Caitlin, who is simultaneously annoyed and endeared to Owen’s whimsy. There is never a false step in this film’s admitted sentimental decadence, as the individual characters are so well written that nothing ever feels too unbelievable or dramatically manipulative.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have out done themselves with their follow up to the Alexander Payne directed The Descendants. The Way, Way Back is a coming of age comedy that exudes warmth and honesty in a culture that has become overwhelmed with vapid and self-indulgent comic fare. Duncan’s story, while being familiar, succeeds through its allowed complexity and personable nature, reaching out and sympathizing with its viewers. In his own review of the film, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Rash and Mr. Faxon…approach Duncan’s story with gentle good humor, underplaying both comic moments and emotional explosions. While this restraint makes ‘The Way, Way Back’ pleasantly watchable, it also makes it feel small and anecdotal, a modest variation on something you’ve seen before.” Duncan’s story may be anecdotal, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially when the anecdote is so inspiring and substantial.

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