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The Way Way Back (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

The Way Way Back


Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Zoe Levin, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Ava Deluca-Verley, Andria Blackman, River Alexander, Jake Picking, Aingealica Venuto and Robert Capron.

Screenplay by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.

Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 103 minutes. Rated PG-13.

The Way, Way Back is nothing you haven't seen before: a coming-of-age drama set at a beach resort during summer vacation.

However, it is rare that these somewhat overdone plot points are done as smartly and confidently as done here by co-writers/co-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their 2011 Alexander Payne collaboration The Descendants. (Rash has also become a cult favorite as the wacky dean on the NBC sitcom Community.)

While The Way, Way Back is not quite as serious business as The Descendants, it is strong proof that the earlier film was not a fluke: these two have a fascinating narrative voice and will probably make many more intriguing movies.

Actually, the script for The Way, Way Back has been out there for over ten years, with production starting and stopping on filming. It went into turnaround and eventually became a legendary unproduced screenplay, a part of the infamous Hollywood "Black List" of the ten best unmade scripts.

However, the strength of the script got Rash and Faxon the gig on The Descendants. And, ironically, the success of The Descendants (and the Oscar win) gave Rash and Faxon the juice to return to their original script. Not only were they able to get the rights back, but they were also able to negotiate the job of directing the film as well.

In the press conference for the film, which I attended, Rash explained that The Way, Way Back was loosely based on an incident from his childhood. At the time, his stepfather asked him how he would rate himself from one to ten, and when young Rash low-balled it with a six, the stepdad insisted that he was no better than a three.

That little germ of an idea (recreated in the opening scene here, though the speech is given by the mom's new boyfriend, not a stepdad) is turned into a smart, compassionate and funny look at the foibles of growing up. It is equally inspired by Summer of '42 and Meatballs, and if that seems like an odd mix, somehow it works.

The Way, Way Back (the title refers to the backwards looking back seat of an old station wagon) is oddly timeless, sometimes it seems like it is taking place in the 80s, sometimes in the current day.

The story is about Duncan (Liam James of The Killing in a breakout role), a shy fourteen-year-old, who is spending the summer at the home of his mom's (Toni Collette) new boyfriend (played well against type as a bit of an ass by Steve Carell). He is having a horrible time with their friends and neighbors, childish-acting adults played by Allison Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry. In fact, the only thing about the beach that he has any interest in is the cute, slightly older girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb).

Out of boredom, he bikes around the town and quickly falls in with the crowd at a local water park. He befriends the irrepressible park manager (Sam Rockwell) and is offered a job at the place. Through this new work and new friends and co-workers (including Maya Rudolph, Rash and Faxon) the kid learns to lighten up and enjoy himself. And as an added bonus, it helps him befriend the girl next door.

By the end of the summer, Duncan has learned about love, work and friendship, his mom has seen through the idiot she is dating, and life is looking up.

Like I said, it's nothing you haven't seen before. But it's rare that you've seen it done so quirkily or so well. The dialogue is smart and funny, the performances are spot on and the lessons feels earned, not just rote. And Rockwell does a variation of Bill Murray's camp counselor in Meatballs that is worth the price of admission alone.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: July 5, 2013.

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