The Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants are back with a new film starring two stars of Little Miss Sunshine (Steve Carell and Toni Collette). So even without seeing a trailer, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for with The Way Way Back. Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the film has the potential to be the indie summer breakout of the season. While it doesn’t reach the brilliance of Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, this is a solid alternative to the action blockbusters with a refreshingly wonderful cast and laid-back story.
When we first meet Duncan, the 14-year-old protagonist, he’s sitting in the way way back of a station wagon (very subtle) facing the open road behind him. And he’s being told by his mom’s new boyfriend, Trent, (Carell, playing against type) that he thinks that Duncan is a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10. Nice eh? And so begins the journey of Duncan trying to up his game. He’s off to Trent’s beach house home for the summer, along with his Mom (Collette), and Trent’s daughter.
As soon as they pull up, they are greeted by the divorced, outspoken neighbour who always has a drink in her hand. Yeah, that girl. We’ve seen this role about a million times (her first line yelling from her porch to greet them is “Hooty Hoo!”), so thank goodness we have the sublime Alison Janney (from Juno, how convenient) in the role, who manages to make this insanely over-the-top character human. The training that Janney got with Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire writing on The West Wing serves her well here as that first scene has her spewing out verbal diarrhea at an insane rate. Janney is probably going to get some awards recognition for her work here.
The makeshift family jumps right into the summer adventure, and Duncan has trouble finding any place that he finds even remotely enjoyable. Liam James sure plays a mopey teenager well because there’s times that he’s so non-emotive and non-communicative that you just want to shake him. He finally finds a place that he enjoys at Water Whizz where he meets its owner Owen (Sam Rockwell, adding another great performance to his resume).
Some of the scenes feel a little sitcom-y and stuff you’d learn in Screenwriting 101 (Duncan being forced to dance in the middle of a group circle in order to get them to break it up; his romance with neighbour Anna Sophia Robb), but there’s some truly honest moments here in this enjoyable coming-of-age story. The final scene is a lovely bookend to the opening of the film, and features a subtle and beautiful final shot. The adult cast is dynamite, especially Carell, who takes on a role that goes farther and farther into becoming a villain, but always plays Trent with complexity.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of mindless summer action flicks.