Monday, July 15, 2013

Movie Review: "The Way Way Back"

This is the 16th movie I've seen this year (not counting a few on DVD), and while I've been enthralled by some great summer blockbusters (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Iron Man 3) and become enamored with some indie movies (Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, The Sapphires), there haven't been too many movies that have made me say, "Yeah, I loved this."

Add The Way Way Back to that short list. While it's not a film that blows you away, nor is it one that surprises with its plot, it was tremendously heartwarming and funny, and full of memorable performances.

Duncan (a terrific Liam James) is on his way to the beach house of his mother's loutish boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, stubbly and playing against type), for the summer. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), knows that Trent may not be the best catch, and he may not be treating her son as well as she'd like him to, but she's determined to hang on to the relationship as long as she can, just so she doesn't have to face life alone.

The beach house is about what Duncan expected—Trent's daughter, Steph, treats him poorly, and Trent and his mother are a little too free with the alcohol and the public displays of affection. And although Trent's next door neighbor, Betty (a magnificently manic Allison Janney), is an uncontrollable ball of energy, Duncan is interested in her daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and befriends her awkward son, Peter. But Duncan's encounters with Trent, and Trent's public bullying of him, is enough to send him racing away from the beach house, looking for a haven from the storm.

He finds it in Water Wizz, a water park straight out of the 80s allegedly managed by manchild Owen (a fantastic Sam Rockwell), although it's actually run by Owen's sometime girlfriend Caitlin (the always-enchanting Maya Rudolph). Duncan quickly finds himself enmeshed in the world of the water park, finally feeling like he has a purpose and he fits in, because people care about him. As tensions between Trent and Pam ratchet up, Duncan doesn't want his mother to get hurt but he doesn't want to be caught in the middle of it, so he looks to Owen for guidance, some semblance of security, and affirmation of his worth, something he doesn't get otherwise. (As seen in the previews for this movie, you'll see one exchange between Duncan and Trent, in which Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1-10 and then Trent tells Duncan what he thinks his rating is, which made my heart hurt.)

You know how the story will unfold but it doesn't take away from its appeal. Co-writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Community), who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Descendants, do a terrific job making you laugh and tugging at your emotions without either being excessive. (Both appear in the movie in small quirky roles as well.)

But as much as this movie is about its heart, it's also about its performances. Rockwell's lightning fast delivery of some of the film's funniest lines is terrific, and although he likes to play the slacker who never will grow up, you can tell there's so much more going on in Owen's brain and his heart than he lets on. Liam James brings an awkward, goofy charm to his role, as well as a sensitivity that makes you feel for him. And Allison Janney is in full-on, post-West Wing, Allison Janney mode—loud, brash, ballsy, needy, and hysterical.

The Way Way Back combines the lightheartedness of summer comedies with actual sensitivity and intelligence, and although it hit a little too close to home for me in a few places (and those who know me well will know why), I'd definitely say it's one of my favorite movies so far this year.

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