Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Review: "The Way, Way Back"
Is there anything tougher than being a socially awkward 14-year-old? How about having your parents recently divorced, too? And being dragged off to an unwanted summer vacation with your mom’s vaguely hostile new boyfriend?
That’s the premise of “The Way, Way Back,” the insightful and charming new comedy-drama in the mode of “Little Miss Sunshine,” which also reunites two of its key stars, Steve Carell and Toni Collette.
That’s where the similarities end. Here Carell plays the jerk, Trent -- has there ever been a redeeming movie character named Trent? – who’s dating Pam (Collette), mother of Duncan (Liam James).
Trent is a real piece of work. A car salesman, he drives a beautifully refurbished 1970 Buick Estate Wagon, which as someone points out shows really poor taste in cars. Who puts their energy and money into restoring a vehicle that was considered uncool even when it was brand new?
Trent rides Duncan like a cruel jockey whipping a tired quarter horse. When we first meet them, Trent is demanding that Duncan rate himself on a scale of one to 10. After browbeating a “6” out of the hapless lad, Trent offers his own rating of “3,” saying he doesn’t see much effort from the introverted teen.
“Let’s try to get that score up, huh?” Trent concludes, thinking this is encouragement.
Pam is kind-hearted and loving, but is stuck between her excitement at new romance and wanting to protect her son. She soon gets lost in the whirlwind of drinking, dancing and clam bakes that consumes the adults on the unnamed coastal town where they spend the summer.
Other attendees in the ongoing party include Betty (Allison Janney), Trent’s boozy next-door divorcee, and married pals Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). As Betty’s smart, winsome daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) points out, these summer vacations are like “spring break for adults.”
(No attempt is ever made to explain how these people don’t have to work for weeks and months at a time.)
Trend has his own kid, a snobby girl named Steph (Zoe Levin) who’s a few years older than Duncan and wants nothing to do with him, taking him with her when forced to and ditching him as soon as possible. Susanna is also part of that crowd, though she seems none too thrilled about it, reads books instead of gossiping and appears to have an inner life. Perhaps inevitably, Duncan develops a crush on her.
Just when things look like they couldn’t possibly get worse for Duncan, he stumbles across the Water Wizz, a dilapidated water theme park run by a motley crew of fun-loving adults.
(From my childhood memories, water parks are exactly like regular amusement parks in that people will wait in line for 45 minutes for a two-minute ride, with the notable difference being that you’re standing there mostly naked while the sun broils your skin to a nice medium-well.)
Duncan gets recruited by the loquacious manager Owen, who actually lives above the Water Wizz central office like a debauched fallen demi-god. He’s got a co-manager he’s sweet on (Maya Rudolph), though his lack of responsibility is a constant roadblock.
Something unexpected happens and Duncan finds the mentor/protector he needs in Owen, who teaches him to loosen up, and stand up to Trent. Sam Rockwell is terrific as Owen, who’s all shtick on the outside but harbors dark recesses. One of the loveliest things about their relationship is Owen being utterly astonished that someone would look up to him.
Soon Duncan is ditching his seaside retreat to go fold towels and stack chairs every day, which escalates tensions with Trent. Here’s a hint if you’re dating someone with a teenage kid: if they’d rather go work a menial job than hang out with you during the summer, things aren’t going so well.
“The Way, Way Back” was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Oscar-winning screenwriters for “The Descendants” taking their first step behind the camera. They both also have key supporting roles as burnt-out Wizz workers.
It’s a knockout directorial debut, a feel-good picture about a kid who learns not to feel so bad about himself.