The Way Way Back Review- “Everybody’s Just So… Sad”
This review is presented free of spoilers. Except for my tears. Those are fairly well-documented.
“My mom doesn’t smoke pot…”
So is the plight of young Duncan (a terrific Liam James), a boy in the throes of that awkward time in his adolescence, as he contends with his mom’s new boyfriend and just being sad all the time. It doesn’t help that his stepdad (Steve Carell) is an absolute dick, and Duncan’s mom only seems to want to hang out with him, leaving poor Duncan on his own, lonely and singing REO Speedwagon ‘till his heart’s content. Problem is, Duncan’s heart gets content pretty fast, so he finds his way to a local water park called Water Wizz and starts working there, under the watchful eyes of a bunch of really funny people you didn’t know you secretly wished would run a water park together.
The Way Way Back rests on the laurels of great performances, particularly Allison Janney as the drunk, lonely, and incredibly lively neighbor next door, but especially Sam Rockwell as Owen, the manager of Water Wizz. Rockwell is unbelievably funny (although it’s not so unbelievable if you’ve ever seen Sam Rockwell in anything before), and manages to bring a surprising amount of pathos to the role without making the film feel sappy or painful.
In fact, that’s a very important distinction to make about The Way Way Back: It absolutely, fundamentally should never, ever work on any level but it absolutely does. The mopey teenage male protagonist, the incredibly pretty girl next door, the wise adults in menial positions that take in the young lad…. This should be a miserable and predictable film to slog through, but it somehow turned into what is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Writer/ Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash do a great job balancing the pains of youth with making this film really, really funny. They really understand what it’s like to be a Duncan, and it shows here on screen without being too preachy or dull. I was definitely a Duncan when I was his age, but I was significantly more of a little bitch than he turned out to be, which is why I am a terrible protagonist for a film and Duncan is a surprisingly compelling one. He could have been so much more mopey and whiney, and it could have made us loathe him as an audience, but James turns in one hell of a performance filled with subtlety and manages to not get lost while comedic powerhouses like Maya Rudolph are running around.
Sometimes things get pushed a little too far (there are one or two inspirational dance sequences for my personal taste) but every one of the moments I thought went too far turned into something later in the film that I really liked. Duncan’s eventual nickname earned from a dance competition is a prime example of this.
If I may take another moment to stand in praise of Sam Rockwell, when in the hell is this guy going to get an Oscar nomination? I can’t remember a time his mug was on screen that I wasn’t relentlessly entertained. Dating all the way back to at least Galaxy Quest in 1999, Rockwell has been turning in great performance after great performance without any acclaim from the Academy. Even in films that aren’t very good, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, Rockwell is a force to be reckoned with. Although he was even better last year as Billy Burke in Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, I would love to see at least a nomination for him pop up this year, if only as a way of saying “Sorry we didn’t nominate you for Moon or Frost/Nixon. Really, very sorry about that, Old Bean.” Because the Academy is British now.
Turning in much better work than The Descendants a couple years back, Faxon and Rash have really got something special here. They’ve beaten the thing that once got them an Oscar, and have a film that is more than functional. It’s incredibly affecting, and has so much insight into those terrible dregs of youth. Perhaps it’s the performances, or the well-chosen score (so well chosen, in fact, that I didn’t even notice how good it was), but the Way Way Back will stand as one of the best films of the year and perhaps a future classic in the often-sickening Indie-Coming-Of-Age genre.
Final Verdict: A- – Wonderfully affecting and with some great performances, The Way Way Back is worth all of the hype.
Chekhov’s Gunman is a film and television blog moderated by Kevin Lanigan, a future writer of movies and TV and current writer of letters to my congressman to get Sam Rockwell nominated. Be sure to comment with your thoughts below, and comment or subscribe above for all of my updates.
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That water park looks amazing…