No way. Way.
Last year, when Nat Faxon and Jim Rash accepted the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with Alexander Payner for The Descendants, a bunch of people watching the show said, “Wait, those guys?” Faxon is a dopey-faced blond who has appeared in countless TV sitcoms and B-movies, and bald and awkward Rash plays the hapless Dean Pelton in the cult NBC comedy Community. They weren’t just hammy bit actors, it seems; they could also write. Either that, or they were just edited by the great Payne. Now that their first feature, written and directed only by them, is out and it’s clear Faxon and Rash are not accidental Oscar winners. The Way, Way Back, a coming-of-age comedy set in a summer beach town and its local water park, is one of the best movies of the year: funny, moving, a crowd-pleasing anecdote to the bombastic action films dominating the theaters this summer.
Duncan (Liam James) is a quiet, depressive 14-year-old boy who is spending the summer at his mother’s boyfriend’s beach house. He doesn’t want to be there, partly because he misses his father, but mostly because his mother (Toni Collette) has hitched herself to a snide creep (Steve Carrell), whose daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is almost as unpleasant than he is. In the opening scene, Trent asks Duncan how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10; Duncan says he’s a 6, and Trent tells him he’s a 3.
Duncan cannot stand to see his mother fawn all over a man who treats him like a foster child in a Dickens novel and treats her like his hired caterer. And Duncan is appalled and embarrassed by Trent’s friends: Betty (Allison Janney) is drunken, overly familiar divorcee, and Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) are similarly badly behaved. Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), sympathizing, tells Duncan, “It sucks here. It’s like spring break for adults.” The adults behave very badly.
So Duncan escapes, taking Steph’s old pink bike around the small town. He finds himself at the local water park Water Wizz, where he is befriend by the gregarious manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who presides over a motley crew of amusement park jokesters (including Faxon, Rash, and Maya Rudolph). Owen offers Duncan a job, and Duncan gleefully accepts, keeping his secret happy place from his mother and Trent. It is at this job where Duncan learns, mostly from the avuncular empathic Owen, how to come out of his shell, and this ability to confront reality ultimately leads to a climactic confrontation with Trent.
Faxon and Rash have written a complex plot and created a large number of characters, and it is in how clearly and deeply defined almost all of them are, not just in their lines but in their acting, that the duo show their skills. I can quibble with some of Faxon and Rash’s choices. Too often, Duncan discovers information that propels the plot by eavesdropping; I counted it happening five times. But these are easy to forget when what is overheard, and what is said, is so emotionally accurate, funny, and, at the right moments, sweet.
Probably even more impressive, however, is the film’s casting. James portrays Duncan’s transformation, from mopey to almost mature, with preternatural believability. Collette’s vulnerability, the result of divorce and aging and the realization she’d made the wrong choices, is almost heartbreaking. Janney’s inebriated monologues steal scene after scene, while Rockwell has the role of his career, playing a nearly heroic, delightfully goofy mentor for Duncan. Carrell, who does smarm better than probably anyone in Hollywood today, plays the reprehensible Trent with enough subtlety to make him both realistic and loathsome. I haven’t hated a film character so much this year, and I haven’t loved a movie this much in months.
The Way, Way Back
Written and Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Carrell
At Landmark Hillcrest and Arclight La Jolla