The Way, Way Back
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.
Screenplay: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrel, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, River Alexander, Zoe Levin, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.
“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to leave!… You’re having way to much fun. It’s making everyone uncomfortable“.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash may be familiar to some but they haven’t really been household names over the course of their careers. They are both sometime, bit-part, performers having appeared in numerous TV shows but it wasn’t until 2011 that they earned some well-deserved attention by winning an Oscar for their screenwriting duties on Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants“. Now, they turn their hand to directing and it’s apparent that they’re just as comfortable when calling the shots themselves.
Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) are on a summer holiday with his daughter and her son Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is a shy awkward teenager who has trouble adapting to his new “family”. As he struggles to fit in, he eventually finds a friend in man-child Owen (Sam Rockwell) who gives him a job on the local water park and also some good advice on life itself.
As the film opens we are introduced to our young protagonist who’s been relegated to the rear of the family station wagon. This is known as “the way back seat” and also serves us with the reason to the film’s title. This symbolic status is pretty much how the young man has been throughout his awkward teenage years and having his mother’s obnoxious boyfriend talk down to him doesn’t help matters. Straight away we feel for his plight and it’s this very sympathy that drives the film.
On the surface, it shares striking similarities to Greg Mottola’s 2009 film “Adventureland“, in terms of a coming-of-age story set around a summer job on a theme park, but that’s where the comparisons end. Where that film revelled in teenage schmaltz and contrivance, this has an actual beating heart under the surface and benefits from a sharp wit and a perfectly pitched poignancy. On the evidence here, it also shows that co-writer/directors Faxon and Rash have a keen sense of both adolescence and adulthood and that “The Descendants” was no fluke in applying them both. Their characters are well observed and beautifully played by all involved; although it’s nothing new for her, Collette delivers her usual reliability while Carell (who I’m not normally a fan of) underplays his role to perfection and does well to leave his comedic chops to the side and allow others to take over. Young Liam James is entirely convincing in balancing the requisite resentment and sullenness of an introverted 14 year-old without ever losing your sympathy and the wonderfully talented, and vastly underrated, Allison Janney delivers her gregarious and borderline alcoholic, single mother, with aplomb. It’s her quick-fire deliveries that keep the film on comfortable ground through some periodic lulls until, the always excellent, Sam Rockwell makes an appearance. Rockwell has never given a poor performance in my eyes but rarely has he ever stolen the show like he does here. The screen is almost not big enough to contain his charisma and superb comic timing (a lot of which was apparently improvised). As good as the entire cast are, though, a lot of credit has to be given to Faxon and Rash for their engaging writing. The laughs are consistent and never feel forced while it’s sentimentality is in equally good measure. It’s testament to them that a film that really should’ve came across as formulaic and contrived, simply doesn’t. It comes across as fresh, honest and, more importantly, thoroughly enjoyable.
Not only reuniting Carell and Collette from “Little Miss Sunshine“, this is also a reminder of that film’s balance of humour and pathos and captures the same human frailty and ability to overcome.
Trivia: In order to save money, the filmmakers decided to not get trailers for the actors, and instead decided to rent a house for the duration of filming (approx. 6 weeks), where the actors could go between takes. The house turned into a popular hangout spot for the cast and crew, and they would often go to the house even during weekends or days off.