Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s ode to all things summer is the perfect reminder that not every Hollywood hit needs to have car chases, special effects, and 3D. With the excitement of winning their first Oscars still coursing through their bodies, the writing team that brought “The Descendants” to the screen take to the director’s chair for the very first time with “The Way, Way Back.” Even though Fox Searchlight’s newest feature premieres amongst two big budget box office contenders—”The Lone Ranger” and “Despicable Me 2”—Faxon and Rash achieve something in their film that no budget could ever buy. Heart.
Anyone that has ever been to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard knows that somewhere between its vintage cars, WASPY population, and seasonal economy, time gets lost along the way. It doesn’t take long for the socially awkward 14-year old Duncan (Liam James) to learn that such a nostalgic, timeless place has an adverse effect on older generations. With no friends and a divorced Mom who suddenly would rather drink beers and smoke weed with her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) than take care of her son, Duncan is lost when he first agrees to spend the summer at Trent’s vacation home. After discovering an abandoned girly pink beach cruiser, however, Duncan’s sense of adventure is finally awakened.
Duncan finds escapade at Water Wizz, the island’s number one water park. Very much like Jesse Eisenberg’s character in 2009’s “Adventureland”, Duncan’s life is given purpose after taking a job at the park alongside the enigmatic owner Owen (Sam Rockwell). In this sense, “The Way, Way Back” is very much a John Hughes type coming-of-age comedy told through the eyes of a millennial. Duncan is the quintessential teen in need of more than just one life lesson, and repeatedly gets them from Owen, who becomes a father figure for the character.
The script is saved from being too preachy, however, by Rockwell’s endearing performance. With indie cred in movies like “Moon”, Hollywood recognition in films such as “Cowboys Vs Aliens” and award season fame in something like “The Green Mile”, it is amazing that the talented actor hasn’t been accepted as the leading man he is more than capable of being. With Owen, Rockwell creates a character that is just like that cool Dad every child knows growing up. Owen teaches Duncan how to come out of his sheltered shell, and even manages to show him how to breakdance and properly ride a water slide in the process.
Rockwell isn’t the only talented actor that gives himself fully to his role. For first time directors, Faxon and Rash do a remarkable job extracting great performances from every cast member, especially Steve Carell, who plays a much darker character than he is typically known for.
“The Way, Way Back” succeeds in championing everything that is good about the summer, without invoking memories of its nastier side effects like sunburn and long amusement park lines. Anyone that loves lazy days, iced tea, and the feeling of sand between his/her toes will love this heart-warming original comedy.
By David Morris