Sam Rockwell Delights In "The Way, Way Back"

It takes an especially talented creative team to make something as familiar as “The Way, Way Back” work, but thanks to co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – and one particularly outstanding performance – it does. And quite well, at that. Faxon and Rash have formed a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story into a world that feels lived-in, its inhabitants exceptionally wacky but never making the leap into unbelievability. The pic’s smooth mix of drama and comedy is a welcome bit of counterprogramming amidst a glut of noisy summer blockbusters, and thanks to a stellar cast, it won’t have any trouble finding its audience.

Liam James stars as Duncan, a prototypically awkward 14 year-old and indisposed participant in his family’s summer vacation. I use the word “family” loosely. His mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and her domineering boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), have little regard for the kid, and the film’s title is made apparent from its opening frames. Duncan is relegated to the way, way back of Trent’s station wagon, not even spared basic communicative rights. It’s a rear-facing seat.

As they arrive at Trent’s summer home, his colorful friends and neighbors quickly come out of the woodwork. Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet play Kip and Joan, a uniquely irritating couple, while Allison Janney steals her fair share of scenes as the more endearing but infinitely loopy Betty. Her daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), strikes up an awkward friendship with Duncan, while her youngest son, Peter (River Alexander), becomes something of a comedic linchpin because of his lazy eye. That the screenplay’s barrage of “lazy eye” and “eye patch” jokes comes off as sweet instead of mean-spirited is a testament to the light touch of Faxon and Rash.

But make no mistake – this is Sam Rockwell’s movie. As Owen, a perpetually adolescent water park manager, Rockwell is a one-man wrecking crew, the heart of the film and the root of most of its laughs. As the king of unjustified swagger, Owen is simultaneously the best and worst possible father figure for Duncan, and their relationship is among the most vibrant of any film this year. In a more substantive film, Rockwell’s performance would garner some awards season buzz, but the relative slightness of the material has little bearing on how fantastic Rockwell is here. It feels like a privilege to watch him work.

Faxon and Rash, veteran actors in their own right, show up in memorable supporting roles as two jaded waterpark employees, while Maya Rudolph gets a few minutes of screen time as Owen’s reluctant squeeze, Caitlin. The cast as a whole hits most of the required notes, each actor doing what he or she does well – with one or two exceptions. Rob Corddry’s talents are woefully underutilized, his character acting as little more than a placeholder. The same goes for Peet, but her role at least serves to move the narrative along. Also, Carell and Rockwell get virtually no screen time together, a disappointingly shortsighted error on the part of the filmmakers.

Although he film won’t sate anyone’s thirst for daringly original cinema, it’s so heartfelt and relatable that few will be able to resist its charms. With a story as derivative as this, it’s important to gently tweak the formula while allowing the cast to do most of the heavy lifting, and that’s exactly what happens here. Carell convincingly plays against type, Rockwell turns in one of his finest performances to date, and the picture’s younger cast members uniformly impress, making “The Way, Way Back” more than worthy of its post-Sundance buzz. I can’t wait to see what Nat Faxon and Jim Rash do next.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: July 5, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Screenwriter: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material)