Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Catching up with 2013: The Way, Way Back

Tonally, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush’s The Way, Way Back reminded me a bit of Greg Motolla’s wonderful coming of age story Adventureland. Even though The Way, Way Back deals with younger characters, here we have a young male protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), using an amusement park to help him navigate the murky waters of his life that await him post-summer vacation. Those murky waters: which parent he’ll end up living with, each residing on opposite coasts. On the west coast is Duncan’s father, who always seems to have something going on and keeps his son perpetually hoping that he’ll be invited to stay with him. On the east coast — where the film takes place — Duncan’s divorced mother, Pam (the always great Toni Collette), is dragging him along to a beach house with her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). There, all of the usual coming of age/Summer that Defined My Life stuff happens, with all of the usual characters that inhabit these type of indies (Allison Janney as the acid-tongued drunk and Sam Rockwell as freewheeling guru).

That’s not to say The Way, Way Back isn’t effective in parts. Rockwell and James are great together (especially their last two scenes, which trend more towards the dramatic), and Anna Sophia Robb’s performance as Susanna, the girl that (mostly) quietly observes Duncan’s behavior, finding him fascinating in the process. Janney and Carell seem mostly superfluous, though, and even though Janney does elicit laughs and Carell elicits cringes, they’re both just kind of going through the motions.

Superfluous and familiar character types aside, I appreciated Faxon and Rash’s reluctance to use narration or spell out some kind of usual coming of age epiphany via exposition at the end. The Oscar winners do a good job of keeping things humming and refraining from doing any kind radical character makeovers (in fact, I would say I liked this film more than the film they won their Oscar for, The Descendants, because this one is more earnest in that regard). Collette is always brilliant and worth watching, and Sam Rockwell puts a lot of energy into his role, yet he wisely knows when to dial down his shtick as Owen — the immature man-child that shows Duncan how to follow his own path (their introduction to each other, using Pac-Man as an obvious metaphor, is a great scene, but it tips its hand early in regards to what we’re getting with Owen).

But  it feels minor for the subgenre; The Way, Way Back is not as smart about young male life or as funny as something like the aforementioned summertime coming of age tale Adventureland, but it goes down just as smoothly. It’s a totally watchable and smile-inducing experience that is nothing memorable or note-worthy, but it’s perfect for a lazy afternoon/evening.


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