The Museum of Moving Image in Astoria is having a Summer Coming-of-Age Comedies series and as a part of that showed a preview screening of The Way, Way Back (2013). In addition to the screening, some personnel from the film came along to have a Q&A afterwards, including writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and co-stars Sam Rockwell and Liam James. For their part, the object is to start spreading some word of mouth for their movie coming out July 5th where it will go up against The Lone Ranger (2013) and Despicable Me 2 (2013). That’s tough scheduling as they all overlap in demographic appeal, though I expect The Way, Way Back will probably be the best of the three. If it hadn’t been for Gore Verbinski‘s previous outing Rango (2011), I would have said “easily the best”. The Way, Way Back is dependable. It’s trailer says that and now I say that.
Duncan (Liam James) and his mother Pam (Toni Collette) are on their way to a summer vacation spot in Massachusettes with Pam’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). From the very start, Trent sets things on the wrong foot asking what Duncan thinks of himself on a scale of one to ten. Duncan says, “I dunno, a six?” “I think you’re a three.” It never really gets better. Duncan’s mother is asleep for that exchange and seems committed to half-sleeping through all Trent’s bad qualities in the hopes of keeping some kind of family unit. Duncan, however, takes every chance he gets to get away from this dysfunction to ride his bike to investigate the town and blow off all that angst he seems incapable of putting into words. Then he finds the Water Wizz (a real place) “run” by the incredibly relaxed Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen offers Duncan a job cleaning up puke and stuff and Duncan quickly accepts. At the Water Wizz, he comes of age.
It’s a solid coming of age movie that has no element of summer movie gambling to it. It won’t disappoint any in your party and some of you might even l-o-v-e, love it. [I bought this trail mix that I didn’t realize had chocolate chips and peanut butter chips and it’s taking all of my will power not to throw it away. I tastes like diabetes.] Maybe the dark B-story is a little darker than usual, but the self-confidence building exercise is very typical. What really differentiates this from non-quest coming of age movies is that getting the girl (AnnaSophia Robb, who I liked) is not the sum total of Duncan’s emotional health. On Pam’s side of the story, as well, the getting of the guy–and there’s no “will Pam get with Owen” element at all, I’m happy to say–is antagonistic to her own psychological well-being. And the writers Faxon and Rash don’t compromise (except once) to shape things into a super-happy conclusive ending. Perhaps it’s that spirit more than any other that will court financial success next week.
The movie is funny and like any funny movie, it’s up to the actors to make it stick. The Way, Way Back has a ridiculously good cast. Those I haven’t mentioned yet include Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, the writers/directors Rash and Faxon, and most especially Allison Janney who bounds onto the screen and doesn’t let go for a solid five minutes. She was on fire. Steve Carell is very strong in the part. There may be people out there that want to discount his abilities, but when Carell is successfully loathsome, that’s good acting. Liam James, as Duncan, somehow keeps the movie going despite being, as he seems to be in real life, awkward, soft-spoken (when spoken at all), and shuffling. But he bursts out and does so convincingly. Toni Collette seems to have a biological propensity to breed awkward loners. Maybe if she had more than a passing interest in her boy instead of work/self (The Sixth Sense (1999)), politics/self (About a Boy (2002)), or her man/self (The Way, Way Back), maybe there’d be more children coming of age in more normal, mundane ways. No, she’s good.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention Sam Rockwell who almost single-handedly transforms this from drama to comedy. From the Q&A, it’s pretty clear that those present basically play some version of themselves–and I mean that beyond the banal “there’s always something of yourself in every character”. Rockwell is dry and funny, while Liam is awkward and idolizes these guys and the writers/directors are fun goofs. Rash isn’t really as weedy or petulent as in the movie, though, so that’s an exception. I’m trying to find a movie where Rockwell disappointed in the least and I’m coming up empty. Maybe I didn’t love him as Head Thug in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), I can’t remember, it’s been a while. For me, he’s like a less serious version of Edward Norton. Maybe I should alter that to self-serious.
One more comment and I’m a little wary of planting ideas, but here goes. In the trailer (and the movie), Nat Faxon’s character stops a pretty girl before she goes down the slide and holds her there while everyone viciously checks her out. Every theater where I saw this trailer, and that included some semi-art houses, this moment got a huge laugh. That’s pretty un-PC, right? We don’t even see her face. It crossed my mind to ask that at the Q&A, but I feel like I might have been torn apart.