At the 2012 Academy Awards, “The Descendants” took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and most viewers were probably surprised to see writer/director Alexander Payne (a previous winner for “Sideways” and nominee for “Election”) flanked by Dean Pelton from “Community” and that dude from “Club Dread.” It was the first time in Payne’s career not collaborating with his usual co-writer Jim Taylor and the first time he had taken to rewriting someone else’s screenplay (in this case an adaptation of the novel by Jim Rash (“Community”) and Nat Faxon (“Club Dread”). Most people watching Payne’s acceptance speech probably assumed that it was his award to take home and the other two were just lucky to be standing up there. For their second screenplay and duo decided to step behind the camera with “The Way, Way Back” and prove that it was no fluke. Inspired by the Rash and Faxon’s summers spent at the beach, going to waterparks and avoiding their parents, this coming-of-age comedy should have no problem becoming a sleeper hit in the vein of “Little Miss Sunshine.” (It was the only film I saw at Sundance this year to receive a standing ovation.)
The title is a reference to the back row in the family station wagon – it’s a term that should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the ’70s or ’80s – where we meet our protagonist, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a pale wallflower on his way to the beach with his family for the summer. Duncan’s mom Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, playing against type) have been dating for about a year and in an effort to coax Duncan out of his shell, Trent has inadvertently made his potential step-son even more of an introvert by constantly picking at him. Duncan is asked to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10 in an incident inspired by Rash’s own stepfather when he was that age. It’s jarring to see the usually sunny Carell playing such an unrelenting asshole, so much so in early scenes you want to forgive his horrible behavior because you think you’re supposed to be laughing with him.
At the beach house, the family splits off into different factions with Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) heading to the beach while the adults – including sun-baked chatterbox neighbor Betty (an absolutely hilarious Allison Janney), Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) – get drunk and act like children as they recognize a summer at the beach is basically “spring break for adults.” To kill time Duncan gets a job at the local water park where he befriends his much older co-workers Owen (Sam Rockwell, at his most Sam Rockwell-iest), Caitlyn (the always delightful Maya Rudolph) and Roddy & Lewis (Faxon and Rash). Owen becomes a mentor to Duncan, slowly building his confidence throughout the summer while Duncan builds the confidence to woo neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), whose parents are also divorced.
Despite this sunny backdrop ‘Way, Way Back’ is not without a few rough edges. Carell’s character is certainly a darker one than we’ve seen from him before and that may be a tough sell for audiences used to the actor playing more genial types. Likewise the character of Duncan is a few steps more reserved than your typical Hollywood loner, he’s nearly silent in the early section of the film and it takes him quite a while to really start coming into his own. The biggest knock one could level against the film is that you’ve seen countless versions of this story before (the similarly themed “Adventureland” comes to mind) but it’s the aforementioned little touches that set apart from larger studio fare. (“Night At The Museum” director Shawn Levy was attached to an earlier version of the film and one shudders to think what he might’ve done with it.)
Rash and Faxon are both former members of the famed improve troupe The Groundlings (which has produced comic talent ranging from Will Ferrell to Phil Hartman among many others) so it’s not unexpected that the film is very funny. (Just try to clock the jokes-per-minute every time Rockwell or Janney are onscreen.) But what’s even more impressive coming from the first-time directors is that the film still aims for the heart and isn’t just a series of gags strung together. Comedy is hard enough on its own but comedy that resonates is a rare thing indeed. It’s admirable that Rash and Faxon are continuing to head down that path they started with “The Descendants,” even if this film isn’t quite as refined. On the surface “The Way, Way Back” is as mainstream of a crowd-pleaser that you’re likely to get this summer, but by drawing from their experiences, Rash and Faxon have made a film that entertains and still has a personal stamp. [B]
This is an edited version of our review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.