I don’t tend to spend much time at the movie theaters during the summer months, as I’m not a big fan of superheroes and comic books. I am interested, however, in sweet, heartfelt, hysterical movies like The Way, Way Back, which I saw this weekend, and absolutely loved.
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants, The Way, Way Back tells the story of 14-year old Duncan (Liam James), who, when forced to spend his summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette), her obnoxious boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), meets a wacky adult, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who gets him to open himself up to possible joy in the world. On the surface the film is a totally predictable coming-of-age flick — unhappy kid goes through an experience that changes his life. But in the sturdy hands of Faxon and Rash, and it’s more-than-capable cast, it becomes much, much more than that.
It all starts with James, who gives a central performance that is deeply moving, deeply sad, and, ultimately, deeply joyous. For much of the film this kid is truly, truly unhappy. He’s not just “in a funk,” or “sort of pissed off” — he’s troubled. He’s lonely. He feels abandoned and isolated. This doesn’t just last a few minutes before his new adventures at Water Wizz, the local water park, begin — it lasts the whole first half of the movie. His despair is evident in his face, in his body language, and in his voice. That James is so convincingly sad makes the rest of the movie soar. When he starts to open up, a real, visceral weight feels like it is being lifted. And when he smiles, and lets loose, it’s downright transcendent.
The rest of the cast is also fantastic. Rockwell brings tremendous soul to the role of Owen — this is a guy who is not one of life’s winners, but that doesn’t prevent his heart from being wide open. He gives a liberated performance that’s genius is in its unexpected rhythms. It totally works. Allison Janney steals every scene she’s in as the drunk neighbor, Carrell is just asshole-y enough to hate without being cartoonish, and Collette allows you to see where Duncan gets his sadness from. Faxon and Rash are also excellent in smaller roles, though the always-genius Maya Rudolph is wasted in a straight woman role.
So, see Superman and Pacific Rim if you must, but also make time for this low-key charmer. You won’t be sorry.
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