Sydney Film Festival – The Way, Way Back review

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By Simon Miraudo
June 7, 2013

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, former Groundlings and recent Oscar winners for penning The Descendants, make their directorial debut with The Way, Way Back. A sunny, bittersweet tale marked with moments of goofy, cringe-inducing comedy and the occasional saccharine speech, it’s a clear relative of their last, Academy Award winning effort. But The Descendants felt like two films pulling in opposite directions; as if director and co-writer Alexander Payne was trying to remain detached from all the heartstring tugging in the script. It was a movie ashamed of itself. The Way, Way Back is not that. Instead, it’s kind of embarrassingly proud of itself. Hey, I’ll always admire the latter over the former.

Liam James plays Duncan, an agonisingly awkward 14-year-old dragged along by his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), to her awful boyfriend Trent’s (an alpha-male Steve Carell) summer beach house. He finds solace at the local water park, where slacker guru Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes him under his wing. As the weeks pass, Duncan’s confidence slowly grows, allowing him to connect with neighbour Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). However, Trent’s barely enthusiastic attempts for the two of them to find common ground prove disastrous, ensuring Duncan remains miserable throughout the trip.

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There is a sequence in which Duncan is encouraged to break-dance before the water park’s patrons. Earlier, he’s caught embarrassingly singing along to REO Speedwagon by Susanna. From moment to moment, it feels as if Faxon and Rash are crafting their own take on One Crazy Summer (they even play oddball park employees, along with the always welcome Maya Rudolph). Then, the flick will take a dark right turn and halt the laughter. A quiet game of Candy Land quickly goes sour (geddit?); a couple of major relationship slowly crumble over the course of the holiday. Yet, the emotional climax involves a water slide race. The tonal shifts are far less jarring than in The Descendants, though it still feels as if Faxon and Rash are finding their footing when it comes to making a dramedy work.

Allison Janney is a delight as Susanna’s hurricane-like mother Betty, and both Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are fine additions to this – and any – cast as fellow holidaymakers. James is certainly a charming and likeable lead, but it is Rockwell who indisputably steals the show, as he is often wont to do. Faxon and Rash are talented comedians and improvisers, and in Rockwell’s Owen, they have a vessel to deliver every gag and bit they no doubt workshopped on set. Playing that unfiltered a jokester could have been a poisoned chalice; there can indeed be too much of a good thing. Rockwell makes it work. The directors are also wise to include a scene in which he dances for his co-workers, and us, the audience. And that, as in any Sam Rockwell movie, is a necessity. Have you seen this guy’s moves?

3/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

The Way, Way Back plays the Sydney Film Festival June 10.

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