In Fight Club, Edward Norton said, “With insomnia, nothing is real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” What he’s really talking about is the law of diminishing returns. Whenever you create a duplicate of something, the result always degrades slightly. The same goes for film. Bela Legosi was terrifying in 1931’s Dracula. A thousand vampire flicks later, not so much. With shared actors, a similar “everyone grows” story arc and the same production team from 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back doesn’t have the fresh feel of its indie predecessor but still provides laughs and heartbreak in equal measure.
The Way Way Back follows a jigsaw puzzle family consisting of mom (Toni Collette), her two children Steph and Duncan (Liam James) and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) as they spend a summer in a Cape Cod style resort town. As the adults party like high schoolers and Steph hangs out with her valley girl friends, Duncan mopes around the seaside “not fitting in”. All that changes after a chance encounter with the manager of the local water park (Sam Rockwell) gives Duncan opportunity to learn a little about himself.
Hey you. Wake up! Trust me, it’s not as blasé as it sounds.
Much like the film’s obvious inspiration, the main success of The Way Way Back is how it mixes intense drama with biting comedy. While the main storyline deals with a rocky relationship triangle and Duncan’s coming of age story, much of the laughs come from the margarita loving neighbor, played by Allison Janney. Her interactions with her cross-eyed son and mopey daughter inject a much needed dose of hilarity. It’s brash, outlandish and wonderful. Steve Carell also impresses by playing against type as Toni Collette’s douche boyfriend. It’s refreshing to see The Office alumnus break out of his loveable loser persona and show off some character range.
Sam Rockwell, however, steals the show as Owen, the live life by the moment manager of Water Wizz. Helped by an excellent script and some spot on improv, Rockwell balances the off the wall character with heart and depth. When he’s not rambling around the park like a madman, his interactions with co-worker Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) are genuine and heartfelt. It’s early, but I’d go so far as to pencil him on my Best Supporting Actor shortlist.
Sadly, there are a few speed bumps in this water slide feature. Unlike other indie dramedies like The Kids Are All Right and Little Miss Sunshine, the kids in Way Way fail to bolster the film like the adults do. The main faults are failures in the script. The movie’s youngins never have much to do aside from mope around or be stereotypically shallow. As the lead, Liam James gets an opportunity to arc but his growth is choreographed by a plot of out of place circumstances. Remember how I said characters should drive plot not the other way around in my Man of Steel review? Same rules apply here.
If The Way Way Back has been released in 2005, it could have been a minor classic but time has dulled this familiar formula. However, just because a film’s genesis derives from the indie movie copy machine, it doesn’t mean the end result can’t still be a quality print. Despite the well-worn feel good story and some missteps in the script, the overall experience satisfies both the desire to feel and the desire to laugh. Thanks to some terrific performances from the adult ensemble cast and genuine heart, The Way Way Back is a lovely antidote for the noise and bombast of the blockbuster season.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born, New York based and Austin bound, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of media. He currently writes bi-monthly reviews for Pantheon Magazine and his micro fiction story, K, was recently accepted for publication in Solarcide’s flash fiction compilation, Flash Me. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. Check out more of his work atwww.thesurrealityproject.com.