Monday, August 5, 2013
The Way Way Back
The Way Way Back is a film that was barely advertised, and that doesn't seem to be getting a great deal of attention commercially. Luckily, during a bout of binge trailer-watching, I stumbled across it and stored it somewhere in the bowels of my mind. A rainy day during my brief long-weekend visit to Ottawa led my mom and I to venture to the movies, and the only film we could agree on was this small indie picture that I vaguely remembered being vaguely intrigued by. We had stumbled upon one hell of a hidden gem, and one of my favourite movies of the year so far.
It's release is perfectly timed, as the story plays out a somewhat tired narrative paradigm of many "summer" movies: teen goes away with his family for a beach vacation and finds himself along the way. What's refreshing about this film, however, is that it completely avoids the stereotypical plot points, characters, and settings, instead opting for a honest and bare-boned story that really resonated with me.
While a coming-of-age story at it's heart, The Way Way Back actually takes on the form of a brief snapshot of the lives of half-a-dozen lost adults, as seen through the eyes of a socially awkward 14-year-old. Certainly, we want to see our protagonist Duncan (Liam James) grow and find happiness, as with any coming-of-age flick, but I found myself happily distracted by the adults that flit through his life. Particularly, I was struck by how authentic they felt to me; I've met them all before. I'm sure of it.
We are first introduced to Duncan during a car ride. His mom Pam (Toni Collette) sleeps in the passenger seat and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, playing heavily against type) drives. Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), is zoned out in the back seat. In the very back, in a seat that faces away from the rest of the family, sits Duncan. Alone and ignored. Trent asks him to rate himself between 1-10, and when he isn't happy with Duncan's hesitant answer of 6, he lets him know where he stands. "You're a 3," Trent tells him. Perhaps he thinks he's helping; only the audience can see the heartbreak on Duncan's face.
Thus begins the vacation from hell.
Duncan is relegated to silent observer. He stands quietly (poor posture, gangly arms; the perfect image of puberty) as a parade of dysfunctional adults filter through the beachhouse. First, Kip and Joan (played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), old friends of Trent's who seem to always be at the house, and always drinking. Neighbour Betty (played expertly by Allison Janney) is also drunk (or high) most of the time, and loud might I add. She'll also tell anyone who'll listen of her ex-husband, who recently came out of the closet, and how her kids would rather live with him. While Betty at first appears to be there purely for comic relief, it becomes clear rather quickly that there is a great deal of sadness behind her never-ending stream of jokes.
The film is written and directed by comedic duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also make great cameos in the film as water park employees. While the writing/acting very occasionally feels a little green, and perhaps a little hesitant, the big picture is a beautifully honest one. Sam Rockwell in particular absolutely sparkles as Owen, who sees the sadness behind Duncan's awkwardness, using his disarming charm and humour to reach out to the boy in the way he really needs.
For his part, young Canadian Liam James does a surprisingly good job at displaying the progression of Duncan over the summer. He begins as almost painfully strange, lumbering about, staring; one might even accuse him of lurking. Once brought out of his shell by Owen, though, we see him begin to harmlessly copycat. He'll hear a certain phrase, story, or mannerism from Owen and begin to mimic it to great results. Only after mastering "playing the man" can Duncan begin to become one himself, and Owen is the best male example being set for him at this critical juncture in his life.
I probably could go on about it forever, if I'm being honest. Collette's amazingly subtle performance as the meek woman who just wants to be loved, Carell's surprisingly tragic weekend-dad, or the way it made me feel so full of joy with every innocent laugh it gifted me with. What makes this film so memorable for me, though, is it's ability to present this all-too-familar story in a way that doesn't feel forced, contrived, or derivative. It is unique, much like the films it is now being compared to (namely, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno). While the indie gems that came before it may have drawn similar feelings of refreshment from me as a viewer, The Way Way Back nails the central goal of any great picture: it goes it's own way.