The Way, Way Back (2013)
Sometimes you can wait the whole summer for a tender, bittersweet and amusing coming of age comedy drama surreptitiously concerned with familial conflict and the foibles of adults seen through an adolescents eyes, and sometimes two come along at once. With the Sundance sleeper The Kings Of Summer still in theatres I surprised myself by catching The Way, Way Back this afternoon, I know I mentioned seeing You’re Next over the weekend but the screening times simply didn’t gel with my schedule, so I thought I’d take a something of a chance with this sharply observed and mildly moving sun speckled dramerdy. Besides, having combed through the TiFF press schedule this morning with a microscopic glee it looks as if the first film I’ll be seeing after waking up in foreign climes, getting my bearings, venturing downtown, picking up my media credentials and locating the initial screening centre is going to be a bloody three-hour holocaust documentary, so I figured taking in something a little lighter, a little quirkier, a little more uplifting seemed like a wise move at this juncture – evidently the movie gods are beaming at me from the heavens as this just what the doctor ordered.
Things aren’t going too well for 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), reluctantly press-ganged into going on summer vacation to a modest Cape Cod beach house with his mother Pam (a sympathetic Toni Collette), the bane of his life is her recent boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell playing against type as a officous git) and Trent’s OMG spouting daughter Steph. Still suffering the emotional fallout of his parents divorce he’s an introverted and clumsy mope, lacking confidence and afflicted with the usual adolescent ennui he’d much rather be spending the summer with his unseen but sorely missed dad. At the beachouse Pam and Duncan are introduced to his potential step aunt, the hard-drinking Betty (an amusingly slurring Alison Janney) and her children, the google eyed Peter and beaming Susanna (Anna-Sophia Robb) who supplies Duncan with his first confused crush. Listlessly wandering through the sun dappled town he finally alights at the local water themed amusement park and is taken under the wing of the laid-back, free-spirited Owen (a mischievous Sam Rockwell) who introduces him to his rag-tag group of misfit employees, offering him a secret summer job and a solace from the family squabbles which sour the beach house domestic entanglements.
I’m still not entirely sure how its title relates to the film but The Way, Way Back is a charming little indie comedy in the vein of the Juno’s or the Little Miss Sunshine’s of the movie world, amusingly amiable, frequently hilarious, with the odd emotional gut punch which lands with a wince inducing groan when the gentle banter recedes and the pathos is swept to shore. Alison Janney cycles through the film like a permanently inebriated cyclone but the real reason for admission is the central performance of Liam James, the skill with which he transforms his character from a stooped and mumbling mope to a confident and agitated young man displays an acting prowess and deft dexterity which seems wise beyond his modest years. Most viewers (myself included) will exit the cinema still chucking at the antics of the unimpeachably excellent Sam Rockwell whom as ever is disarmingly hilarious, the roguish glint in his eye and dismay at behavioural norms cloaking a compassionate heart warmly beating under the banter.
In terms of tone the film neatly sidesteps some of the usual mawkish traps of this sort of big studio funded cinema, the projects which are shepperded to screen through their arm’s length boutique distribution arms (Fox Searchlight wrote the cheques for this one), the quirk factor diluted by realistic character conflicts and agendas which are recognizably cruel and complex. Crucialy there is a tender honestly between Duncan and Susanna as youngsters similarly dismayed at the antics of their parents – she also lightly mourns her absent father so they make a genuine connection beyond a simple blushing affection – with scenes that are pitched and play at just the right balance of gawky humour and poignant pathos. Whilst not entirely imparting stock life lessons or entirely resorting to the tedious narrative tool of a final emotionally charged, resolution bound finale The Way, Way Back is a pleasant stroll down the beachfront of character based American independant cinema, offering no permanent band-aids to what may ail you, as the sun goes down the messy commotion of life, love and family endures;