Sundance 2013 Review: THE WAY, WAY BACK Wants You to Laugh as Hard as You Can. And You Will.
Being the awkward kid is the worst. Making friends is hard; everyone thinks you're one with the freaks, and contact with the opposite sex is pretty much non-existent. Since lack of confidence is always going to be an uphill battle and the Pretenders will not always be around to "...Stand By You," something needs to happen to balance out the suck -- a strange and wonderful friendship, perhaps?
If you agree, keep reading, because this is the story of The Way, Way Back: a way charming, way honest, and way, way funny movie about an unlikely friendship.
Way, Way opens with Duncan (Liam James) being asked by his mother's boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) to rate himself from 1-10. At first we think Trent means well and is being funny, but we quickly learn he's kind of a really big dick when he tells Duncan he's a three, adding more insult to injury. It's safe to say these two don't see eye to eye. And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in Trent's family. His daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is arguably more cruel to Duncan than Trent. The four are heading to Trent's beach house for some sun and fun, but it kind of sucks for Duncan because Trent and his daughter clearly hate him, and the only person who understands him is his pushover mother, Pam (Toni Collette), who kneels to Trent as he pleases.
Where they're heading isn't much of a place for kids -- especially kids with no friends -- but more of a "spring break for adults," with drinking, drinking, and, well, more drinking. So like any awkward kid celebrating nothing to do in a foreign land, Duncan spends a lot of time eyeballing Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who lives next door, and riding the tiny pink cruiser he found in Trent's garage. Good luck comes to rescue his boredom, however, when he meets the manager of the local water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen gives him a job at the park, and Duncan's adventure of real fun begins.
Let's kick this off and talk about the Infallible Sam Rockwell. His performance as Owen is the funniest I've ever seen him and perhaps his best performance to date. There's no question that he's fluent in "awesome," but here, he will make you laugh until you hurt. He really goes for it. His comedic timing is flawless and he owns every second you see him -- from the first glimpse we see him grinning as he passes Duncan and his family, to, well, every word that comes out of his mouth for the rest of the film. Owen is flippant and lives and breathes by telling jokes only he appreciates more than everyone else, and he loves it. Every line Rockwell delivers is hilarious. And Owen's banter with Duncan will make you love him, no matter how much of a meatball he is. If lots of acclaim doesn't come Rockwell's way when this film releases, there will be blood.
500 words in and I haven't even gotten to Allison Janney yet. She plays Betty, Trent's long time next door neighbor who's off the wagon (again). Sloshing her way through her scenes with a drink always in her hand, Betty is the woman who dresses just as inappropriately as she speaks. Janney makes every one of her scenes count and eats it up as this sloppy woman. Betty is that mom you knew in high school who wanted to hear all the gossip and hang out with her kid and their friends. Janney is notable for some profound dramatic performances (see Life During Wartime), but here she has a field day as the boneheaded Betty, cuts loose, and is just as bonkers as Owen. Maya Rudolph and Rob Corddry also co-star and deliver their sharp wit. Watching this ensemble is paradise.
Besides remarkable performances from Rockwell and Janney, big, big credit goes to the filmmakers, Nat Faxon (that guy in Broken Lizard movies who co-wrote The Descendants) and Jim Rash (that guy on Community who also co-wrote The Descendants). These two make a slick writing duo. The Way, Way Back is tightly polished and there's not one dull moment in the film -- there are so many scenes and so many characters (Faxon and Rash included) that will make you laugh out loud, and hard.
It's quite possible I'm boldly going where no film critic is supposed to go and calling this film a perfect comedy. OK, yeah, it's a perfect comedy. You'll be adding this to your collection of favorite "summer vacation" movies. Trust me. The Way, Way Back is everything you want in a laugh out loud, crowd-pleasing, coming-of-age movie.
P.S.: Yes, there is a Sam Rockwell dance scene.
(Follow Chase Whale on Twitter.)