The Way, Way Back Directed by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash Cast: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Maya Rudolph Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: July 5, 2013 (Chicago)
PLOT: An adolescent boy (James) gets a job at a water park during an initially miserable summer vacation.
WHO'S IT FOR? If you like your summer comedies with star power, lacking fart jokes, and packaged to be an "indie," you'll probably enjoy the breezy coming-of-age fun of The Way, Way Back.
The independent film gambit has reached a point now where writers are not focused on cribbing from Hollywood formula to intentionally make a mainstream movie, but instead one that works more cozily within the modern definition of what makes an indie film. Or at least, that's how it appears to be the case with The Way, Way Back. This is a comedy assembled earnestly by a writing/directing duo with high intentions on making their directorial debut a laid back crowdpleaser, albeit for the crowd that saw Little Miss Sunshine before it was recognized as a popular film.
Throughout their script, Faxon & Rash embrace the more familiar methods in pleasing their crowd, but resist others. In terms of embracing, Way, Way Back begins with obnoxiously hammy comedy, in which characters like a tanned mom played by Allison Janney hyper-actively bounce off the film's foundation for the sake of garnering airy laughs. Her daughter, played by AnnaSophia Robb, even brings back memories of the type of emotional mix-and-matching that created Jennifer Lawrence's character in Silver Linings Playbook, in the position of "wise love interest who inspires change in crumbling dude." A tip to the tricks of Way, Way Back, however, this film thankfully doesn't outwardly focus on a relationship between Robb and the film's central teen, Liam James' Duncan.
Later in the story, the attitudes take a sharp cheesy turn with a scene that involves a firmly planted sequence of gaining immediate acceptance, in which Duncan receives approval from his peers, creating an identity (complete with cutesy nickname) that is relevant for the rest of the film. To top it off, Way, Way Back even concludes with the tiresome "Where do we go now?" ending, where lead characters look at each other with the open-ended question of how they'll manage a new form of relationship in the unwritten sequel.
In spite with these elements, in which The Way, Way Back owns up heavily to its inspirations, this film does have some sparks that make this directorial debut stand out. Carell's performance as a tragic jerk of a mama's boyfriend is yet another strong turn from the comedic actor who enjoys playing against expectation. In terms of comedy, Faxon & Rash succeed in writing themselves funny characters, their supporting beings furthering lightening up this movie with genuine laughs.
One aspect that looks initially common but then turns out a bit fresh is young actor James, who provides a commendable embodiment of teenage angst. His posture is rightfully bad, his fists as clenched as his lips, as he visibly computes things in his head that he doesn't understand. Or in the case of The Way, Way Back's adult perspective, things he doesn't understand in the way that his oppressive adults do.
The film reaches its strongest points when it basks in the jovial sunshine that is Sam Rockwell, who provides another supporting character that has him dancing through the scenery as he steals the show. Rockwell's character also provides the movie its more interesting tale of growing up, playing the adult who himself does not recognize the full concept of responsibility. His own lesson is shorter, and yet more interesting, than the film's main focus.
In this movie's case, The Way, Way Back is where mainstream set-ups are handled with modern indie sensitivities. The results are refreshing considering the palette of the summer movie season, but with such embracing for easier entertainment routes through obvious inspiration doesn't fulfill the expectations one has for these co-writers of 2011's The Descendants. One should suspect that these two promising writers will find an even stronger direction once they begin to look forward.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10