The Way, Way Back: Sundance Review
Oscar-winning writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash make their joint debut as directors in a coming-of-age tale set at an aging water park.
PARK CITY — With an Oscar (shared with Alexander Payne) for adapting the Hawaii-set The Descendants still warm in their pockets, comedic actors and screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon turn to another kind of water paradise for their directorial debut The Way, Way Back. Set at a water park near a beach vacation town, the tender and very funny film follows a misfit teen as he gets his first taste of confidence among the water slides. Reminiscent of Greg Mottola's 2009 Adventureland but more focused on laughs than nostalgia, the crowd-pleaser would make a great summer release.
One assumes this film was originally intended to be, like Adventureland, an '80s-set period piece. The title refers to the rear-facing back seat of a vintage station wagon; songs by Mister Mister and REO Speedwagon are used without irony; and our hero's first test of mettle occurs at an impromptu break-dance party.
Whether the setting was changed to avoid Mottola comparisons or to control the budget, the film's story could easily take place any time in the era of rampant divorce: Duncan (Liam James) is stuck spending the summer at the beach with mom Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), a situation made more awkward by the presence of Trent's daughter-from-earlier-marriage Steph (Zoe Levin), a prototypical Mean Girl.
Spending as much time as he can away from the unwelcome advice of Trent, who calls him "Buddy" and thinks making things work as a new family means hectoring the boy until he's normal, Duncan winds up with a secret job at Water Wizz, an ancient but successful park presided over by joke-cracking layabout Owen, a man with a fondness for oddballs.
As Owen, Sam Rockwell gives what may be the most winning performance in a career full of charm. Managing to tease Duncan relentlessly while simultaneously boosting his self-esteem, his Owen steals the film, tossing off comic monologues and only occasionally complaining that his humor is over everyone's heads. (Or, more to the point, too reliant on 1980s references to be understood by today's youth.)
In her first scene as the alcoholic next door to Trent's house, Allison Janney competes with Rockwell for laughs per minute -- she's a tornado of Too Much Information -- but her character soon calms down enough to be wise witness to Trent's increasingly sketchy treatment of Pam, and to lay her own single-parent burden on standoffish daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
Despite the familiarity of this setup, Way Back is a charmer, putting refreshingly little emphasis on Duncan's romantic needs and allowing family melodrama to erupt and simmer down without pat resolution. Like a kid who gets a free summer in an exclusive beach town and chooses to spend his days manning a chlorine-and-concrete water park, it knows when not to take the obvious route.
Production Company: Sycamore Pictures, Doubleyou Inc, Oddlot Entertainment
Cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Zoe Levin, River Alexander
Directors-Screenwriters: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Producers: Kevin J. Walsh, Tom Rice
Executive producers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Ben Nearn, Gigi Pritzker, George Parra
Director of photography: John Bailey
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Music: Rob Simonsen
Costume designers: Ann Roth, Michelle Matland
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Sales: WME, CAA
No rating, 102 minutes