July 12, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Grade: B -
Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Liam James, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet and Maya Rudolph
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.

The Hollywood assembly line is just as geared to churn out faux-indie dramatic comedies as another sight & sound show about fighting robots. Although (or Because) The Way, Way Back debuted at January’s Sundance Film Festival, even its late July release date is transparently strategic: late enough to avoid the summer box office behemoths, late enough in the year that it won’t be totally forgotten once awards time rolls around, but far enough removed from November and December that it won’t get capsized by higher quality film fare.

Still, just because something is mass-produced—whether it’s food, cars or movies—doesn’t mean it can’t also be enjoyable. And in the wake of a summer season filled with sequels of the week, superheroes, zombies and Johnny Depp wearing a freakin’ crow on his head, a serviceable coming-of-age dramedy, no matter how generic, is a welcome diversion.

It’s a tumultuous time for 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is conscripted to spend the summer with his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) at the Massachusetts beach house of her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent’s catty teenage daughter Stephanie. On the ride down, Trent rates Duncan’s current life worthiness at three on a 10-point scale, effectively establishing both Trent’s passive-aggressive churlishness and his strained relationship with Duncan.

It’s no small irony that the name of Trent’s cottage is “Riptide,” as a morass of conflicting psychological forces rules this roost. The mood gets no better once Trent’s circle of friends comes calling, including Betty (Allison Janney), the boozy flibbertigibbet neighbor, and Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), Trent’s equally shallow pals.

Isolated and ostracized at every turn, the dour Duncan finds solace in two places. First is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Betty’s strikingly grounded daughter, who takes an instant liking to her newfound neighbor. The other is Water Wizz, an area aquatic park where Duncan takes furtive bike rides to work and hang out with Owen (Sam Rockwell), one of the park’s longtime employees and resident wiseacre.

Making their directorial debuts, writers Nat Faxon and North Carolina native Jim Rash—both last seen winning an Oscar for their screenplay for “The Descendants”—reportedly drew on their own childhood experiences to craft their latest script. But, there’s also a snapshot of This Boy’s Life, a morsel of Meatballs and a layover in Adventureland. Moreover, from the adult actors’ ages to the conspicuously 80s soundtrack, the film seems more fixated on the arrested development of this group of Generation Xers facing their midlife crossroads.

It’s a sledgehammer of a metaphor that Water Wizz serves as Duncan’s personal oasis away from the rest of his complicated life. Given the neuroses enveloping Duncan’s home life, it’s comforting that Owen’s friendship lacks any ulterior motive, and that Susanna’s fondness comes without strings or wavering.

Nevertheless, James plays the latest iteration of a young actor’s role familiarized by Anton Yelchin/Josh Peck/Logan Lerman/Reece Thompson/etc. (Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera are two of the few members of this club to separate themselves from the pack). However, Owen is a role tailor-made for Rockwell, who is given the meatiest dialogue and reciprocates with the one performance that awards voters are most likely to remember from way, way back in July.

*Orginally published at INDYWeek.com

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