Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Wow -- that was an incredible movie.

Such is the only thought I could muster once the credits rolled on this long-awaited movie. Let's see if I can create some longer, more coherent thoughts and opinions on why it's so incredible.

Duncan (Liam James) is going to be spending his entire summer in a beachfront cottage, and he's miserable about it. See, the cottage belongs to his mom Pam's (Toni Collette) boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) who's overbearing and insulting in an underhandedly "well-meaning" way. He waits for Pam to be asleep before he tells Duncan, as he sits in "the way, way back" rear-facing seat of the station wagon that he thinks on a scale of 1 to 10, he ranks a 3, and callously encourages him to improve. Trent's daughter Steph is even less subtle in her disdain. Trent's friend Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) are obnoxious and patronizing. Then there's the neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) with her rude, unfiltered mouth, her weird son Peter with a lazy eye, and sullen but pretty daughter Susanna, (AnnaSophia Robb) who just seems to bring out all the most embarrassing awkwardness in Duncan. Beachfront or no, this is looking like the beginning of an awful summer.

How to be miserable while on a yacht 101: Ridiculous life-vests.

To escape, Duncan bikes around town on a little pink bike and happens upon exactly what he desperately needs: Sam Rockwell. Owen is a fun-loving, full-time jokester and manager of Water Wizz, and most importantly, the direct opposite of Trent. Even though he never overlooks an opportunity to poke fun, he gives Duncan a job, and along with other water park employees Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) and Roddy and Lewis, (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, also co-writers and directors) makes him begin to feel comfortable, welcome, and at home. So maybe this summer won't be complete torture after all.

Roddy, Owen, Duncan and Caitlin ready to procrastinate.

Okay, so that was a nice, short plot summary -- now where to start? How about with the spot-on and simply amazing writing and directing from Faxon and Rash -- their overall story in general is never ground-breaking or very original, I'd say it's a very classic indie coming-of-age plot, and I wouldn't say it's a bad thing, but it doesn't matter because the story goes way beyond ridiculous trappings like trying to be "original" and instead focuses on being actually meaningful, and honest. In that, it's wonderfully successful, and from it comes a surprising amount of originality. (How paradoxical!) Based partially on the writers' childhood memories, every situation has a sense of familiarity, particularly the awkward and painful moments, as we unfortunately all know the glory of an awkward stage. There's also a wonderful balance of sharp, brilliant comedy and potent, unforced drama, and we get a nice, hard look at human nature.

I also love how realistically the scenes flow, especially group scenes like this one.

The characters are perfectly fleshed out in that not-too-obvious way classic to independent films that I love. Each character is complex and realistic, and (more or less) has their commendable and flawed sides. And even though every one of them appear at first to fit snugly into a stereotype, finding just one word to perfectly describe any of them is difficult. Here is where praise for the writing begins to blend with praise for the acting. With this movie more than most, I realized the teamwork it takes to create such great characters, and Faxon and Rash were obviously very lucky and scored and all-around brilliant cast who enhanced their great characters in the most complementary way to the writing possible.

This lady, Allison Janney, is one prime example.

Duncan is basically the epitome troubled loner introvert hiding in a tightly closed shell, and Liam James embodies him impeccably, with pitiful awkwardness and slumped shoulders. It's impressive acting anyway for a fifteen-year-old, but I find it even more impressive considering the vast difference between this role and playing the younger version of class-clown Shawn Spencer in Psych for four years. When he left the show to get into films, I thought it was an ignorant move; I was wrong. Even with all those well-seasoned older actors constantly surrounding him and in spite of his character being such a wallflower, he still consistently holds the spotlight of our attention and affection.

I still think he was the best "little Shawn" though.

The only one who really distracts us from Duncan is the ever-incredible Mr. Rockwell. The great thing (or one of many, anyway) about Sam Rockwell -- and therefore Owen too -- is that he can be the most immature goof-off, spewing a relentless torrent of wise-cracks and punch lines, each more sharp and hilarious than the last, but when it's time to be serious, he's equally amazing, trading in his goofy immaturity for some somber and kind sincerity. Owen is the main source of the best and most consistently funny comedy I've seen in a long time, but he's also a part of the most compelling and heartfelt moments of the film.

This guy never ceases to amaze me.

Also worth a quick mention: Allison Janney is the next person in line to scene-steal with sharp comedy, and she does get away with a few, but in order to really appreciate her performance, watch her in an interview first or something -- otherwise you'll think she's naturally that way. Toni Collette is exactly as wonderful as Pam as you would expect her to be if you've seen her before. She plays the struggling single mother exceptionally well. And I don't hold the popular opinion that Steve Carell is a classically "likeable guy," I more appreciate his ability to be a funny jerk than a charming everyman, but still I felt shocked at how awful his character was being, and he did it horribly -- amazingly -- well. AnnaSophia Robb hit my "serious actress" radar with her role; Amanda Peet was very simply a perfect bit of casting, and Maya Rudolph had a cute dynamic going with Rockwell.

Really though, with a movie set at an awesome water park, you just can't go wrong!

Still, add up all these positives I've mentioned and it still comes short of how much I love this movie. I think what I'm leaving out are many wonderful, small, or seemingly insignificant details (some of which I cannot mention due to spoilers) that made this movie everything I was hoping and predicting it'd be. I love the subtlety in the movie with its straightforward pace, always from Duncan's perspective, and its simple scenes that understand that very often silence can be much more effective than even the best dialogue. The nostalgic vintage feel, the awesome soundtrack, or even tinier things, like that fact that no one uses cell phones, or that Susanna dresses a tinge more modestly than her "friends," all add a little to the wonder of the film. Then there's the last ten minutes or so -- a nine-digit budget and all the special effects in the world won't buy you an ending with a heart like that, plain and simple.

Jumping back to that awesome soundtrack I mentioned... Here is its best song -- or my favorite at least -- it's featured in its entirety in the film, matches it perfectly, and has a great set of lyrics: Power Hungry Animals by The Apache Relay.

But after ALL that, I still think my first thought sums it up the best...

Wow. What an incredible movie.


  1. Sounds very interesting, I'd like to watch it sometime. :) The plot reminds me a bit of Flipper.
    Nice review, you really gave a good picture of what you thought about the movie and why you liked it! :)

    1. The plot is pretty similar to a lot of movies I've noticed, but the execution of it is actually very mature, and I think unique. After seeing it, I can't think of any movie to compare it to!
      Thanks a bunch! :)

    2. Cool. You're making me want to watch it! :)

  2. I so want to see this, but I'm going to have to figure out a way to watch it when my husband is not around, as he can't stand watching characters get embarrassed. And so I think he would curl up and die about 5 minutes into this. But I will find a way.

    Allison Janney has intrigued me ever since 10 Things I Hate About You, and she was interesting in Lost too, in a small role.

    1. Aw, that's too bad, and the are a few pretty painfully embarrassing moments too. I hope you can find a way to see it soon! :D

      Hmm, I saw 10 things, but I can't remember her in it. But I can tell from this movie that she is a amazing actress!