By Sandra Kraisirideja
In a movie season dominated by superheroes, aliens and zombies, “The Way, Way Back” is a welcome change of scenery.
The coming-of-age comedy conjures up memories of carefree summers and has a retro feel even though it takes place in modern times. The superb cast includes Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry and Liam James.
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is set in an aging water park in Massachusetts, the real life Water Wizz in Cape Cod. Production designer Mark Ricker (“The Help”) embraces the low budget, technology-free aspects of the movie to create a timeless feel. A lack of cell phones and the use of older model cars make it hard to pinpoint a time period.
Faxon and Rash, who won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Descendants,” have a knack for writing smart, funny movies with quirky, memorable characters. The two actors—best known for their TV roles on “Ben and Kate” and “Community,” respectively,—also have small roles in the movie.
In “The Way, Way Back,” James plays a socially awkward 14-year-old named Duncan who is stuck spending the summer with his mom, Pam, (Collette) her domineering boyfriend, Trent, (Carell) and Trent’s snobby daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Looking to escape the confines of Trent’s summer home, Duncan rides around aimlessly on a girl’s bike until he finds himself at Water Wizz.
This is where the movie finds its groove, thanks in large part to Rockwell, who plays the water park’s carefree manager, Owen. Faxon and Rash said the character was inspired by Bill Murray’s roles in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.”
Rockwell certainly channels Murray for his characterization of Owen, who doesn’t have any particular need for rules or regulations and prefers to have fun rather than do any real work. Yet despite these qualities he’s very endearing. Owen offers Duncan a job at Water Wizz and the two develop a friendship that gives Duncan the confidence to take a step toward adulthood. A budding romance with Susanna, played by Robb, also helps.
Another standout performer is Janney, who plays Betty, a loud, obnoxious neighbor who drinks booze like water but is still lovable. The emotional problems in “The Way, Way Back”—divorce, alcoholism, infidelity, regret and loneliness, are always bubbling under the surface but are never addressed head on.
If there is one complaint it’s that the movie doesn’t get to the scenes at Water Wizz quick enough. Rockwell just lights up the picture whenever he’s on screen and the filmmakers should have found a way to maybe shave five to 10 minutes from the exposition.
This is a tiny complaint really and should not discourage anybody from seeing the movie. It’s nice to know that a well-written story can still find its way into theaters.