Way, Way Back, The

Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 08/27/13 21:06:03

"Love thy neighbour and local water park staff. Hate thy stepfather."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s “The Way, Way Back” had been released this time two years ago, I imagine the furore Fox Searchlight has kicked up promoting the picture would have been much less manic. But hey, that’s what winning an Oscar does for you. Faxon and Rash earned gongs for helping Alexander Payne scribble his 2011 charmer “The Descendants”, “The Way, Way Back” providing the pair an opportunity to collaborate without any other third party, a bevy of recognisable stars tagging along to help bridge a now Clooney-less hole. The films are fairly comparable, and it should be noted that drawing direct links with “The Descendants” doesn’t do “The Way, Way Back” many favours. It’s an incredibly likable and digestible piece of work, but the characterization here is less focused and the overall tone achingly familiar. The picture has personality to spare and a wholesome roster of laughs, but dramatically “The Way, Way Back” is surprisingly soft.

Duncan (Liam James) is an introverted teen forced to embark on vacation with his divorced mother (Toni Collette), her domineering boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, convincing in a cold role) and Trent’s superficial daughter (Zoe Levin). On arrival at Trent’s summer getaway Duncan finds himself abandoned, as the adults indulge their wilder sides, leaving the kids to forage entertainment solo. Whilst investigating the local town, Duncan encounters the Water Wizz amusement park and its rambunctious manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), the latter taking a shine to the isolated teen. He offers Duncan a job, which he gratefully accepts, becoming part of the park’s wacky family in the process, finding the warmth currently absent at home. However in keeping his newfound activities secret from Trent and his mother Duncan incurs their concern, and the fascination of sarcastic but well-natured neighbour Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

“The Descendants” clearly didn’t allow Faxon and Rash to scratch their unhappy family itch fully, because “The Way, Way Back” is built on a foundation of domestic discontent. Broken homes, adultery, relationship crippling feats of arrested development and questionable parenting are the essence of the feature, used to inform almost every conflict and dramatic arc in sight. Some work very well, others transition into the whole less fluidly. Whilst both Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph are little less than outstanding, their subdued Water Wizz romance plays like an afterthought, and the dynamic between Duncan and his mother often seems crammed into sequences more intrigued by other elements; which is surprising given that the movie crescendos on a shot that almost suggests said relationship is the crux of the overall product. I really don’t think it is. On the other hand the burgeoning romance between Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb feels organic, pleasantly unlikely and sweet, the screenwriters fleshing out their shared paternal woes with marvellous diligence. The bonds that manifest between Duncan, Owen and separately Trent echo with similar honesty, helped by the fact that in very different ways, both Rockwell and Carell are on crackerjack form.

One eye is kept on the comedy at all times; “The Way, Way Back” is after all a genuinely merry feature. Rockwell gets the lion share of the guffaws with his unstoppable energy and dainty handling of the writer’s witty dialogue, but elsewhere goofier creations (namely a permanently inebriated Allison Janney and her optically challenged son) nurture hearty amounts of comic charisma. At times it feels like the movie actually works better as a knockabout bit of loony fun than as a study of teen alienation, the quality of the acting more prevalent in selling the quieter angles than anything Rash and Faxon contribute. “The Way, Way Back” dreams of hitting John Hughes levels of observation and insight, but can’t quite muster the detail or care to affect audiences in the same way. It’s more successful as a summer comedy with lashings of serious intent, as opposed to the other way around.

Things unfold rather predictably, but then the set-up is so generic it doesn’t promise much else. “The Way, Way Back” is baked in a warm glow, which when coupled with competent film-making and a few memorable gags can lead to a rose-tinted viewing experience. In retrospect viewers are likely to acknowledge the movie as more disposable than it appears whilst transpiring. It’s clear the tale has little hope of being remembered as anything other than a moderately constructed teen-pic – indeed in the years to come it’ll likely only be recalled as a footnote in the careers of its creators. In saying that, it would be unfair not to praise the piece for its earnest affability and strong sense of humour, both of which make it worthy of a recommendation. [B]

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