Friday, July 12, 2013

Summer Shenanigans

With the Summer full of typical, audience-hungry blockbusters vying for your attention, it can often be difficult for an arthouse independent to gather much traction. I think that's why, when truly special ones are coming out, critics will give them platitudes such as "This year's Little Miss Sunshine", referring of course to the 2007 Hollywood darling that was a dark horse candidate at several awards ceremonies after its mid-July release. That could certainly be the upside for The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar winners for their screenplay of 2011's The Descendants). While there's certainly no shortage of quality indie films this year (many of which could be considered outside-shot Best Picture contenders), there's just something immediately special about this "Best Summer Ever" picture, which comes complete with an all-star cast, raging emotions, and a sufficient number of water slides.

Fourteen year-old Duncan (The Killing's Liam James) is miserable, forced to spend his summer at the beach house of his mother's pig-headed boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) instead of being able to visit his dad, who lives across the country. While mother Pam (Toni Collette) goes along for the ride, Duncan's anguish is compounded by the embarrassing behavior of Trent's friends, the disdain he gets from his nemesis' teenage daughter, and his own inability to reach out and make new friends. That begins to change when he meets girl-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and chances into entrepreneurial slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Water Wizz amusement park. Soon, Duncan is able to ignore all his problems and enjoy growing up for a change. But when things escalate at the home front, the list of good things in Duncan's life might become much, much shorter, and his sometimes-excellent Summer may come crashing to an end.
 Quite the motley crew.
First of all, this is an excellent acting core that Faxon and Rash have assembled, starting with the relative newcomer James. His general morose demeanor throughout the film would suggest that the young man was playing a relatively one-note character, but it's the moments when he smiles or otherwise changes tack, the glimpses of a good time had, that the audience gets a feel for the veracity of his performance. While there are a number of talented actors in this cast, only James has the opportunity to truly carry the film, and that such a young man can do so is a testament to his ability. Rockwell and Carell also do wonders as the two father figures in Duncan's life. Rockwell is generally within his "likable goofball" wheelhouse, but also shows a tender and protective side when it comes to his new ward, again showing his (at times) surprising versatility as a performer. Carell, meanwhile, lets us thank the heavens that he can play something other than cheap Woody Allen knockoffs, and brings an excellent showing to this movie, his most impressive performance in years. What's interesting is that both characters are essentially imparting the same message to Duncan - get out there and do something - but while Trent wants nothing to do with Duncan outside that, Owen is more accepting and inclusive to the young man. The cast is rounded out by good-to-great performances by the likes of Robb, Collette, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet and the always-excellent Allison Janney. Even Faxon and Rash get in on the action, playing minor comedic roles along the way.
I've never hated Carell so much... and that's a good thing.
But these actors also have a great story to work with, one penned by the directors and dripping with Duncan's easily identifiable personality. It's quite effortless to sympathize with the young man as he searches for his own path through life, and Faxon and Rash exquisitely tap into that vein to tell a story that feels not like a cliched coming of age tale, but a true slice of the American experience. Yes, things do develop a little predictably, and it doesn't possess the sheer volume of surprise and heart that Little Miss Sunshine brought with it in spades. But in The Way, Way Back we see a realistic, down-to-Earth recounting of youth and innocence in a way rarely done right on the big screen. Duncan's life-changing summer might be a little bit calculable, but through its performance never is it dull or anything less than promising and encouraging.
Yup, this is where C.J. Craig vacations...
That's where The Way, Way Back stands, as a great but not groundbreaking acting tour-de-force that in reality is no more remarkable than the excellence of Mud or The Place Beyond the Pines but will still be remembered over those entries by viewers and critics this winter simply because of its effort in counter-programming the likes of Man of Steel, White House Down and Pacific Rim. It certainly worked for A Better Life, the 2011 film that had only a modest theatrical run but netted Demian Bichir a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. Whether that will be the same fate for this film is anybody's guess, but there's no good reason to skip this movie when it soon makes its nation-wide expansion in the coming weeks. It may seem like I'm giving this title a ho-hum review, but I promise you that - while it's no Sunshine - if you give The Way, Way Back a chance, you won't be disappointed by your decision.
Didn't anybody ever tell you to never eat amusement park food??

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