I may only be three films into my Sundance adventure, but after today I’m ready to declare a favourite. This afternoon I saw the premiere of The Way, Way Back, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar winning screenwriters of The Descendants. The film very rightfully earned a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, and I hope that the right people were in attendance to get this film into theatres as soon as possible, because this is a movie that deserves a wide audience.
The Way, Way Back follows the coming of age of 14 year old Duncan, an awkward loner who is forced to spend his summer at his mother’s boyfriend’s summer house. After stumbling upon the local water park and meeting the park’s rather eclectic employees, Duncan joins their ranks and finds a happy oasis from the turmoil of his home life. The film sports a large supporting cast of wonderfully three dimensional characters, but it is the stand out performance of Liam James as Duncan that makes the film soar. Alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming, James perfectly captures the confusion, loneliness, and pain that is adolescence, but also the happiness of finding your place in the world and growing up. There were times when Duncan looked so unhappy that I wanted to reach through the screen and give him a hug, and made his growing confidence all the more rewarding to watch.
In addition to James, the rest of the cast was stellar across the bar and yielded several pleasant surprises, including Steve Carell in the decidedly unfunny part of Duncan’s mother’s boyfriend. Carell may not have gotten the laughs in this film, but he is spot on as the overbearing and obnoxious pseudo step parent. Carell later received laughs at the Q&A after the screening when an audience member questioned how Duncan’s mother, played with a beautiful restraint by Toni Collette, could ever be attracted to Carell’s character. Feigning mock outrage, Carell then declared that he would be playing “creepy hunks” from now on. Most of the film’s comedy came from Sam Rockwell, playing the manager of the water park and Duncan’s mentor. Getting laughs from nearly every line, Rockwell is hysterical, but grounded, and he has a lovely scene with James near the end that is refreshingly tender. Finally, Allison Janney nearly steals the show as Duncan’s drunken neighbour, and delivers more laughs in her five minute introduction than most comedy films overall. In a perfect world, Janney would be in every movie from here on out.
Overall, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written and directed a funny, heartwarming, and relatable story, and I can only hope that The Way, Way Back enjoys a long and successful theatrical run. As I left the theatre, all I could hear were rave reviews from those around me, so I know I am not alone in this sentiment. However, for myself, this story had a deeper connection because it brought back a flood of memories from my days working as a lifeguard in various pools and water parks during my quest to pay for university. So much of what I saw in the movie rang true with my experiences of those summers spent scanning the waters, and there were many moments when I saw myself in Duncan. And in case anyone who has seen this film is wondering, yes, it is entirely possible to pass someone in a water slide. And no, I am not going to tell you the secret of how it’s done.