Jim Rash and Nat Faxon took home Oscar gold a year ago for co-writing the screenplay for Alexander Payne’s THE DESCENDANTS (along with Payne). Their new film, THE WAY, WAY BACK, which is also their co-directorial debut, is a project they’ve been working on for a while now. It’s already had strong buzz thanks to several advance screenings, and hits select theaters this weekend… it also may just be one of the best films of the year.
The story revolves around Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old who finds himself reluctantly on summer vacation with his mom Pam (Toni ColLette), her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his stuck up daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). While Trent reconnects with old friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), and his alcoholic neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), Liam looks for escape anywhere he can, which leads him to the local water park called Water Wizz. There he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a free spirit that tries to help Duncan loosen up, and eventually gives him a job at the park. Our young hero also becomes unlikely friends with Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who feels as disconnected and misguided as him. All of this leads to a summer of enlightenment, secrets being revealed, and a young man finding purpose for the first time in his life.
Movies like this aren’t anything new, but if done well they can be material all ages can relate to and find incredibly endearing. This film may be one of the best of its kind. Rash and Faxon use modern day sensibilities but with a throwback feel. I had the pleasure of hosting their Dallas Q&A a month ago for this movie, and they admitted to the fact of Sam Rockwell’s character being intentionally similar to Bill Murray in MEATBALLS, so much so that Rockwell (after reading the script) said “So basically I’m Bill Murray in MEATBALLS.” Using that sensibility, his role becomes the standout performance of the piece, and the most fun character in the story. That’s not to take away from Liam James, who works amazingly well as the lead, displaying the qualities of any misunderstood youth wanting desperately to escape the annoyances of teenage life. He carries the piece with sincerity and conviction – it’s sure to be a star-making performance. Also superb is AnnaSophia Robb as Duncan’s unlikely friend and potential love interest. Robb has been working steadily from a young age, but is growing into a strong actress to watch out for. This role will likely be a solid transitional point for her budding career.
The bigger names of the cast play their roles well, but surely understand this is a piece about the kids, and their performances are strong in a supporting form and not a leading one. Steve Carell gets a chance to play a major jerk this time out, leaving jokes aside and becoming the potential new father any child of divorce would dread. His opening scene in the film is almost heart-wrenching, though some may not realize the hurtfulness of it until they get through the rest of the story. Toni Collette is also quite good as the submissive mother, and brings weight to a role that could have easily been forgettable. Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry get minimal moments to shine, but also play it mostly serious in their respective roles, and are welcome faces in this stellar cast. Outside of Rockwell, the other most memorable performance comes from Allison Janney as Trent frequently drunk and hyper-sexual neighbor. She feels like a not-so-distant cousin of Stephen Tobolowsky’s “Ned Ryerson” in GROUNDHOG DAY, talking at 90 miles a minute and never without a witty one liner. And as if all that wasn’t enough, look for SNL alum Maya Rudolph, along with writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon as employees of the Water Wizz – Rash is particularly amusing in his recurring role.
THE WAY, WAY BACK is one of those films like THE SANDLOT or STAND BY ME that you’ll want to revisit and show to friends whenever possible. It has the strength of being relatable for a variety of age groups and generations, but it’s also far enough removed from the typical Hollywood fare to make it a cinematic breath of fresh air that works incredibly well in this summer of fairly forgettable movies. It’s easily one of my favorite films of the year, and may just be a strong contender for the Academy Awards, depending on how 2013 wraps up – there are few productions out there currently that I could recommend as passionately.
THE WAY, WAY BACK is set to hit select theaters on July 5, 2013.