Oscar-winning writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have reunited to write and direct the charming coming-of-age film The Way, Way Back. The pair scored their gold statue for their work on The Descendants starring George Clooney, but you might also know them from their acting work—Rash as Dean Pelton on Community and Faxon as Ben Fox on the recently cancelled sitcom Ben and Kate. The first-time directors have enjoyed a dream opening for their little indie drama—it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to much acclaim and was recently announced as the closer for the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.
The Way, Way Back‘s TV connection doesn’t just stay behind the cameras; the cast also features many famous faces who made their names or have considerable success on the small screen. Steve Carell (The Office), Toni Collette (The United States of Tara), Liam James (Young Shawn in Psych), Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live), Alison Janney (The West Wing), Rob Corddry (Children’s Hospital), AnnaSophia Robb (The Carrie Diaries), and Amanda Peet (The Good Wife) all feature in the film. Sam Rockwell also features, and while he’s best known as a movie star, he got his start with small parts in TV shows in the ’80s and early ’90s.
The Way, Way Back centers on Duncan (James), an observant, thoughtful teen figuring out his place in the world. An only child dealing with his parents’ recent divorce, Duncan is dragged off to spend the summer with his mom, Pam (Collette), and her new boyfriend, Trent (Carell), at Trent’s beach house. Duncan is unhappy and immediately clashes with his mom’s new beau, but he finds a glimmer of hope in Susanna, the girl next door (Robb). In true coming-of-age tradition, his first interactions with her are awkward and his failure to connect with the pretty teenager sends him into further isolation.
While his mom gets swept up with Trent and his drunken friends, Duncan escapes using an old pink girls’ bike he finds in the garage. Spending his days exploring the little seaside town, Duncan eventually finds a local water park where he befriends the manager, Owen (Rockwell). The affable Owen is the opposite of the competitive and passive-aggressive Trent, and he quickly becomes Duncan’s mentor, offering him a job at the park and a compassionate ear. Duncan’s mysterious daily absences pique Susanna’s interest, and she and Duncan become close. The adults, meanwhile, are having their own drama as Pam begins to see Trent for who he really is.
Liam James has a big job appearing in every scene, but he has the charm and skill to pull it off, delivering an engaging and nuanced performance. Fans of Steve Carell may be startled to see him play the antagonist, but it is an excellent choice for him to go against type at this point in his career and he excels here. The always captivating Toni Collette has filled similar roles (and wardrobes) before as an insecure single mother trying to achieve balance for her family and herself. And then there’s Sam Rockwell, whose career should be the template for all young actors, straddling the mainstream and indie worlds perfectly. Here he balances out the tension with his relaxed manner and likability.
The story and structure has a “paint by numbers” feel. There is nothing new or innovative here; all the components of the “coming-of-age” genre are exactly where you expect to find them. The Way, Way Back is certainly a sweet and charming tale with great performances and amusing moments, but overall it doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before. It opens nationwide July 5th.
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