Review: The Way, Way Back (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: Fourteen-year-old Duncan is forced to spend the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) at her boyfriend Trent's (Steve Carell) summer house by the beach. His only refuge is a nearby water-park, managed by the cooler-than-cool Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes Duncan under his wing.
REVIEW: THE WAY, WAY BACK is the directorial debut of Nat Faxton and Jim Rash, who recently wrote Alexander Payne's THE DESCENDANTS (the two also act- Rash is on COMMUNITY, while Faxton is on BEN AND KATE- they also play small roles here). Like that film, THE WAY, WAY BACK takes a light look at a family in the midst of a rather serious crisis. Where THE DESCENDANTS concerned itself with the loss of a parent, THE WAY, WAY BACK examines how confusing it can be for a family where a new parental figure is added- especially one that's totally unsuited to being a father to a boy in crisis. Duncan's lonely mother has plunged herself, not to mention Duncan, into a relationship with a man she knows very little about, with her being nearly desperate to make things work with the overbearing, passive-aggressive Trent.
One thing that will surely get people talking is Carell's performance as the often unlikable Trent. We're used to seeing Carell as the goofy everyman, but Trent, while maybe not physically abusive, is a jerk through-and-through. This is obvious right from the first scene where he tells Duncan that on a scale from 1 to 10, he only rates a three. Not that Carell plays Trent as totally unsympathetic- who, underneath his own myriad of issues and control-freak demeanor might be somewhat salvageable as a human being, but nonetheless- it's a huge departure for Carell.
Lucky for Duncan, he's able to find himself a much better father-figure in Owen, played by Sam Rockwell in a deft blend of comedy and seriousness in a way that's reminiscent of some of Bill Murray's best roles (Owen is like a real-world version of his character in MEATBALLS). Who wouldn't want to spend the summer hanging out with Sam Rockwell? Rockwell's always been one of those guys that seems just on the brink of stardom, and WAY, WAY BACK could finally be the film that does the trick, especially with Fox Searchlight picking it up for a cool $10 million (this has the makings of a big late-summer hit). Rockwell's incredibly fun as the ne'er do-well Owen, who on the exterior treats everything as a big joke, but underneath that, truly cares about building Duncan's confidence, and maybe also starting a real relationship with his number two at the park (a solid performance by Maya Rudolph).
One of the reasons THE WAY, WAY BACK is likely going to strike a strong chord with viewers (it's been raved about at Sundance) is that fact that it's so easy to relate to. How many of us felt all alone in the world at fourteen? I know I did- but if we're lucky, we also have that place, be it our first jobs, or a popular hangout, which gave us that big boost of confidence, and helped us figure things out. THE WAY, WAY BACK speaks to that experience. Faxton and Rash's screenplay is touching without being cloying or melodramatic, and averts major conflict, making it seem like a real slice of life. No wonder it made the black list.
Certainly, THE WAY, WAY BACK is a very mainstream addition to the Sundance lineup, but it's also the one film I've seen here that I'm absolutely positive will break out in a big way, similar to movies like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. It's a pleasant, uplifting film- and one that I'm sure will resonate with a large audience.