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Monday, September 16, 2013

The Way, Way Back

I give it a nine.

The Way, Way Back is the kind of film that almost makes it worth sitting through an overall underwhelming "summer" season at the movies, as it's exactly the sort of gem that studios slip in during this time of year as a counterpoint to all those sequels, remakes and franchise properties. It is, as such, rather easy to overlook, but, please, if you're going to see one movie in cinemas this month, make it The Way, Way Back. You won't regret it.

The film isn't exactly heavy on plot but, as the best coming of age stories always are, it's very big on character. Duncan (Liam James), a fourteen year old misfit, is stuck on a vacation from hell with his loving, if weak-willed mother (Toni Collette), her hellishly horrible boyfriend (Steve Carell) and his indifferent daughter, before finding some much needed sanctuary in the Water Wizz water park and friendship in the oddball group of characters who run it - but most especially Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park's fast-talking, funny and compassionate, if seriously underachieving, manager. Along the way, there are the usual assortments of unrequited crushes, teenage hormones, misbehaving adults and familial strife to be expected from this sort of thing, but every familiar note only adds to the recognizability and effortless enjoyability of a film that embodies all that's great and immortal about the coming of age tale.

Writers/ directors/ supporting actors Jim Rash (Community's scene-stealing Dean Pelton) and Nat Faxon have crafted a film that's clearly very dear to their hearts and uncomfortably close to home. The Way, Way Back features what is easily one of the year's most attention-grabbing and heart-breakingly effective opening scenes as, driving to their summer vacation and with every other passenger asleep, Carell's character turns to our hero and asks him what he would rate himself on a scale of one to ten. Duncan, being the shy and modest kid that he is replies with a humble but reasonable "six" only to have this alleged father-figure call him a "three", blaming his "unwillingness to put himself out there" as the reason for this self-esteem-destroying evaluation. It's a jaw-dropping moment that encapsulates these two characters and their background perfectly and sets the tone exactly for what is to come. Most shockingly though, it's apparently based verbatim on something that actually happened to a young Jim Rash.  

With this level of truth, character-building and awful pathos established, the rest of the film has no problem building on its perfect beginning but, in no time, injects a healthy dose of laugh-out-loud humour to the proceedings that not only leavens what could have been an oppressive amount of teenage angst and dysfunction, but makes the drama hit all the harder for it. In particular, Allison Janney and the perennially overlooked Sam Rockwell are responsible for most of the film's comedy and they're both spectacularly funny, with the latter, in particular, achieving the kind of balance between melancholy and comedy that should guarantee him at least an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. This being a comedy and he being Sam Rockwell means that probably won't happen but his potentially career-best performance here deserves all the accolades in the world.

Indeed, while those two steal the show, the performances in the film are universally excellent as both the newcomer young actors (Liam James, in particular makes a hell of a splash in his first lead role) and a-list adult cast acquit themselves perfectly, regardless of the size of their roles. Carell in particular makes the best of what is actually a fairly small amount of screen time with a performance that is the precise opposite of both the kind of characters he usually plays and what his off-screen persona seems to be. Even Michael Scott at his Office season one worst doesn't hold a candle to this guy. His character is, admittedly, the least developed but because his entire existence in the film is as a dark reflection of Duncan's world, rather than anything on his own terms, it's a potential flaw that is easily forgiven.

Finally, there is the Water Wizz park itself, which is turned into one of the key characters of the film. Along with the usual nostalgia that such a place might affect in filmmakers of Rash and Faxon's age, the water park is portrayed as both a real and a metaphorical wonderland in which the character can escape the harshness of the real world. The irony and symbolism of Duncan escaping the sea side by running to what is effectively its artificial equivalent is another touch that only goes to exemplify just how extraordinary a piece of storytelling The Way, Way Back actually is.

There's nothing spectacularly original here and if you're looking for a movie where lots of Big Things happen then The Way Way Back certainly isn't for you, but it's a film of such humanity and wit that it would take a specific kind of curmudgeon not to be won over by this beautiful, warm-hearted and effortlessly funny gem. Like all genre films, coming of age stories adhere to specific rules but when they're handled as pitch-perfectly as they are here, it becomes a genre with the ability to resonate in a way that few others can. Watch this on a double bill with last year's similarly transcendent The Perks of Being a Wallflower to see just how good this genre can be and how vital it still is.

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