Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: The Way, Way Back (2013)

The Way, Way Back (2013)

The Way, Way Back tells the tale of a teenage boy named Duncan (Liam James) who is on an utterly awful summer vacation in a Massachusetts beach town with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and her boyfriend's bratty teen daughter Steph. The people Duncan meets at the beach house, which include the perpetually-drunk older woman Betty (Allison Janney) and Trent's friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), are no better, causing Duncan to feel isolated. That changes when he gets a summer job at a a water park and becomes friends with Owen (Sam Rockwell), its owner, and strikes up an interest in Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a girl staying at the house next door. Duncan's summer becomes markedly improved, but the antics of his parents and their friends may well end it too soon.

Have I missed anything? Oh yes, I missed one very, very important little thing.

This movie is absolutely amazing.

Seriously. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. In a summer dominated by bloated action movies and apocalyptic destruction, you could not ask for a better piece of counter-programming. The Way, Way Back is one of the best movies I've seen all year, and unless some really good films come out this fall, it is almost guaranteed a spot in my Top Five list at the end of the year.

A huge part of why I fell in love with this film so easily was its main character, Duncan. I connected with Duncan in a way that I rarely do with characters in movies. While I will root for the hero in most films, none of them had me as gripped by their presence as Duncan did. A huge part of this, I feel, is that when I was watching Duncan, I felt like I was watching myself as a teenager. I too was quiet and withdrawn in my youth, taking jokes and sarcasm too literally, and getting way too embarrassed by awkward situations. I felt that I didn't fit in with my mother's group of friends, many of whom were bikers or were dating bikers -- a culture that I feel zero connection to. When Mom had them over, I was usually in my room playing video games. I saw all of that and more in Duncan, and I couldn't help but feel that Duncan was the younger me. So when he started coming out of his shell with help from his co-workers and the girl next door, my mouth doubled in width from my smile. I was so fully invested in Duncan's life and his growth that I stayed through most of the credits simply because I did not want to leave the theater. I didn't care when I was able to start calling off the story beats by the end, or that Owen seemed to be a male mentor version of the "manic pixie dream girl" archetype. I just loved this movie and this character. It helped that Duncan's actor, Liam James, was more than able to pull off his development. While I feared at the beginning of the movie that he felt sort of one-note, as the movie went on I saw otherwise. This kid is one to pay attention to.

The writing/directing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (aka Dean Pelton of Community) know how to make this movie work. They managed to capture both the tedium of Duncan's experience at home and the joy of when he is working at the water park and hanging out with Susanna, to the point where I was dreading the scenes where Duncan had to go home just as much as he did. This is probably the first time when I didn't mind that parts of the movie were slow and boring to watch, because the movie couldn't have worked half as well had they not been slow and boring. It makes the rest of the movie that much more of a joy to watch, just as it was for Duncan to experience. I especially liked the juxtaposition of Duncan slowly growing up and becoming a man with his parents regressing into what Duncan compares to "spring break for adults," and when their drunken misdeeds starts to threaten what had become a really good vacation, you rightly hate them just as much as Duncan did.

But Duncan was hardly the only character in this film. Next to him in importance are Sam Rockwell as his boss Owen and AnnaSophia Robb as his friend-who-happens-to-be-a-girl Susanna. Don't be fooled by the top billing of Steve Carell and Toni Collette; Rockwell and Robb's roles are just as important, if not more so, and both of them are just as stellar as Liam James is, giving their characters the same life. As for Carell and Collette, the former does a great job playing against type in a serious role as the archetypal "mom's jerk boyfriend" character, while Collette also has room to shine as the mother dating the aforementioned jerk. The same goes for the large supporting cast, made up of such character actors as Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet as Trent's friends, Allison Janney as the alcoholic older woman (another type I'm too familiar with), and Maya Rudolph and co-writer Jim Rash as two of Duncan and Owen's co-workers. From top to bottom, every character here had a great performance powering him or her.

Score: 5 out of 5

I might have been predisposed to enjoy this, but if you can't find a reason to at least like this movie, then there is something wrong with you. Anybody who ever felt alone as a teenager is almost guaranteed to love this movie.

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