It's no secret that I loved The Descendents, and called it one of my favorites of 2011. The adapted screenplay from Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won an Oscar, as well as gave us a good laugh at AngiesRightLeg's expense. I was eagerly looking forward to their next collaboration, as this time they were taking on directing duties, too. The duo seems to have a knack for sweet stories filled with humor and nice human moments without resorting to too much quirk. Plus, I love Rash on Community and really liked Faxon on Ben and Kate until Fox shortsightedly cancelled another good show. You can say I'm a little biased on this one.
Duncan (Liam James) is on the road to summer vacation with his mother and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). While Pam (Toni Collette) is asleep in the car, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale from one to ten. Duncan reluctantly answers with six. Trent disagrees and calls him a three. Trent's kind of a dick, but he has a point. Duncan is a terminally shy, awkward 14-year-old that really needs to get out there and develop some social skills or any kind of social life. He's uncomfortable around everyone, especially the cute girl next door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Trent wants him to get that score up. His heart is in the right place, but that's not the most constructive way to tell a kid you don't know that well that he needs to get out there. Also, telling a kid he's socially awkward doesn't help him not be awkward or help him grow socially. Give him some tools or notes to improve. It's like saying I know you suck, you need to suck less. How does that help? He's a little too hard on the kid overall. Plus, it's one thing to be hard on your own son, but when you're hard on the son of your girlfriend, I tend to think that's crossing a line. It's interesting to note that Trent hides this behavior towards Duncan, as well as other things, by doing it when Pam is not around.
Trent has a older daughter (Zoe Levin) that doesn't want to be seen with Duncan either. Pam and Trent spend a lot of time with the drunk next door neighbor (a fun Allison Janney), as well as a couple of Trent's friends, played by a somewhat muted Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, who needs to be in more movies. Betty (Janney) encourages Duncan to hang out with her younger son (River Alexander), but he's a bit of an oddball.
Duncan eventually gets tired of all the drunken, adult shenanigans and starts exploring the town on his own. While hanging out at a local water park, the park's manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes Duncan under his wing and hires him to do odd jobs. It's never really clear what Owen's role or job is, especially since he seems to answer to Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who laments her station and that she works harder than just about everyone there. Anyway, Duncan becomes more and more comfortable around everyone and makes many friends at the water park. Owen is that mentor, older brother, or even father that Duncan lacks.
The Way, Way Back is yet another coming-of-age story. Is 2013 the year of coming-of-age films? I'm happy to say though that his continues the trend of good ones. When I look back at earlier films like Mud or The Kings of Summer, they all have a distinct tone and style to them, so I've yet to feel like I'm in a cycle of watching the same movie and over and over.
Later in the film when Trent's true colors are on display, Duncan's finally able to stand up for himself and confront him and his mother. It's that moment in the film where you see that he's becoming a man. I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed the movie so much is that I saw a lot of myself in Duncan. I was a goofy looking kid when I was that age. Braces, bad hair, unsure of myself, and really, really shy. What I would have killed for an Owen back then. Liam James plays that socially awkward kid well. I can forsee a few more roles like this for him in the near future.
Much of the supporting cast isn't in the film as much as I would have liked, but they're not the focus. I appreciate seeing Steve Carell playing against type again. I like it when he branches off his typical comedic track. AnnaSophia Robb has been a favorite young actress of mine since Bridge to Terabithia and she finally seems to be getting larger exposure in recent films. I still predict big things for her.
Where the film really takes off is when we're at the water park. There's lots of playful interaction between Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph, as well as most of the other employees played by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. The relationship that develops between Duncan and Owen is sweet without being cheesy or forced. When we finally reach the end of the film, you don't want to see these two say their goodbyes, but it's done in a way that's satisfying.
As much as I liked The Way, Way Back I have to wonder if I would have liked it as much if Sam Rockwell hadn't been in it. Would I have been as invested not knowing he's showing up later? Sam Rockwell is easily the best thing about the film. Every scene he's in is great. He's so good that if another actor had played Owen, I'm not sure that movie would have worked at all. A water park might not need an anchor, but sometimes a movie needs an anchor like Rockwell.
One thing struck me as odd is that when you see the family driving in an old station wagon, I wasn't quite sure if this was a film set in the past. This is confused further when it's mentioned that Trent is car salesman and brags that he's fixed the car up as a classic. I'm pretty sure I saw some of the younger folks using cell phones (but not Duncan), and there's references to iPods. Then in other scenes, you see people playing Pac-Man and Duncan is familiar with the game to the point where he points out that the game has a pattern. There's also lots of 80's music. It really doesn't matter all that much as this is another movie that's timeless.
Much like I said about The Kings of Summer, The Way, Way Back is a film that I didn't want to end. While it's a simple, coming-of-age story in a year full of them, it still manages to stand apart with its own style and voice. It's extremely funny, sweet and is worth seeing just for the great performance by Sam Rockwell. I wouldn't be surprised to see a best supporting nod for Rockwell this year. I look forward to seeing the film again. Still playing at select theaters, I highly recommend checking it out soon.
4.5 (out of 5)