By Caryn James | James on Screens July 5, 2013 at 9:00AM
Just when it seemed that the days of overpaying for Sundance movies had ended, this year Fox Searchlight spent almost $10 million for the very conventional-sound coming-of-age movie The Way Way Back. That deal sent me into the screening room recently wondering if they'd lost their minds; I left thinking they're smarter than ever. The film is warm, engaging, and thoroughly charming even though we can predict every turn in the story of 14-year-old Duncan, who finds his inner, confident self over the summer.
Among the few surprises: Steve Carell as Trent, who is
dating Duncan's mom. The film begins (as you see in the trailer below) with Trent
driving Duncan, Duncan's mother (Toni Collette) and his adolescent daughter to
his beach house for the summer. In the guise of being helpful, he berates Duncan
for being a 3 on the 10 scale of people ratings.
The more confident Duncan later echoes
what we think right away: "Who says
that?" Carell, as the bone-headed
bully who says that, is so willing to be unlikable that he reminds us what a
truly good actor he is.
As Duncan, Liam James (he also plays Jack, Mireille Enos's son in The Killing) conveys the sweet vulnerability of a kid just past the cusp of childhood, old enough to observe and judge the adults' dangerous liaisons without quite being there himself. He is desperate to escape the adults in the beach house, even though their intrigues are amusing to us. Allison Janney has the most attention-getting role as Trent's obnoxious neighbor, the kind of person who boozily calls attention to her own drinking and thinks of herself as fun. Rob Corddry's character is married to Amanda Peet's, whose flirtatious dance with Duncan ("Enjoy therapy," Trent's daughter says.) signals the start of her bad summer behavior.
No wonder Duncan rides a bike -- a pink girl's bike he found in Trent's garage -- and flees every day to an old-fashioned water park, Water Wizz, where Sam Rockwell is the smart-ass manager who becomes his role model and (to use a term wildly out of touch with the backward-looking feel of the place) his life-coach. Despite the oddball setting, this is the most ordinary, movie-fake part of the story. (In real life, Duncan's mother would be a whole lot more alarmed when an older man starts driving her son home.) Rockwell's stock character isn't as engaging as the movie seems to think he is, but the film is entertaining enough so we can let that go.
The Way Way Back was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote the screenplay for The Descendants along with Alexander Payne. While The Descendants is a much richer film, The Way Way Back shares its generosity toward its characters and its tricky balancing act: it's a commercial crowd-pleaser that doesn't overdo the sentimentality.
The directors are also actors, who have small roles as water park employees. Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on Community, is nerdy Lewis here. Faxon (from Fox's recently cancelled Ben and Kate) is Roddy, who runs the water slide and teaches Duncan how to ogle women inconspicuously. The options for role models are very limited at Water Wizz, but then the film is less about realism than escapism. Despite the retro park and the film's title, The Way Way Back is not an exercise in nostalgia. It's an escape into an old-fashioned kind of movie -- slight, sweet and endearing.