July 5, 2013



THE WAY, WAY BACK:  Watch It At Home – Modestly Engaging Coming-Of-Age Tale

THE WAY, WAY BACK is one of the last real indie hopes for a original breakout hit this summer (it was a big buy out of Sundance, a $10M purchase by Fox Searchlight, the studio behind the Sundance smash Little Miss Sunshine), but watching it, you may feel as though you’d already seen it on cable.  For the relatively few people who know Greg Mottola’s 2009’s Adventureland, with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, it may seem disturbingly close to an unauthorized remake of that not-so-distant (and excellent) film, but even for those who missed Adventureland, there are few surprises to be had in Way, Way Back.  Unlike The Spectacular Now, a much less high-profile and more nuanced Sundance teen drama coming to theatres later this summer, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s directing debut is content to repeat character and story beats from a whole generation of coming-of-age movies.

Our audience–and probably filmmaker–surrogate is Duncan (Liam James), sensitive teenage son of recently divorced Pam (Toni Collette).  Duncan is dragged along when Pam accompanies her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s own children to Trent’s beach house for a summer vacation.  Trent is monstrous, a lower-key, more passive-aggressive version of The Great Santini who constantly belittles Duncan while Pam, who’s desperate for the relationship to work, pretends not to see what’s happening.  Duncan lays low as much as he can, mooning over Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the slightly older daughter of Trent’s blowzy next-door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), and eventually finding his way to Water Wizz, the second-rate amusement park (as in Adventureland) that will be his salvation and make a man of him.

Duncan’s catalyst and mentor is Owen (Sam Rockwell, doing a wonderful job as the movie’s stand-in for Bill Murray in Meatballs), the laid-back, semi-irresponsible, kindheartedly caustic manager of Water Wizz.  Owen has a small kingdom, but he’s its unquestioned monarch; his subjects include girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), who sees all his flaws with a jaundiced but loving eye, and a couple of denizens played by Faxon and Rash (who are familiar actors in their day jobs–Faxon was Ben on last season’s Ben & Kate, and Rash plays the Dean on Community).  Owen doesn’t rouse himself often, but he sees something in Duncan and responds to it, and his recognition of Duncan’s specialness and refusal to let Duncan remain recessive validates the boy’s sense of self.  Their charmingly inspirational friendship is the heart of Way, Way Back.

Faxon and Rash co-wrote the script for The Descendants with its director Alexander Payne, and the trio shared a screenwriting Oscar, but The Way, Way Back is a much more conventional piece of work.  The characters lack dimension, and once they’re established, they act in a predictable way.  (It isn’t enough for Trent to be a petty tyrant to Duncan; he has to be made an unambiguous villain by mistreating Pam as well.)  That doesn’t keep the movie from being entertaining and even moving–cliches get that way because they work–but there’s not much sense of excitement or discovery.

As directors, Faxon and Rash have an understandable appreciation for performers, and many of the actors besides Rockwell do very fine work within the confines of their roles; Carell, in particular, accentuates the genuine nastiness that occasionally poked through his Michael Scott, and one can feel his relish in playing a darker, more selfish character.  First-rate performers like Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry, though (the latter two as more beach house neighbors) are mostly left stranded.  The directors’ visual sense is unexceptional but effective for this story (the photography is by John Bailey, who’s made a specialty of working with first-time directors, and the production design is by Mark Ricker), and the pace, as edited by Tatiana S. Riegel, is swift and absorbing.

It makes sense that The Way, Way Back (the title refers to the fold-up rear seat of Trent’s station wagon, where he plants Duncan for the drive, and also seems to imply the movie as Duncan’s memory piece, even though it’s set in the present day) is the widest release of the summer’s indies about young people, because unlike The Spectacular Now and also the remarkable Short Term 12, there’s nothing in it to confuse or complicate audience reactions.  The characters and their stories proceed in a straight-ahead, heartwarming fashion, content in their old-fashioned way to make us smile in anticipation of what’s to come and always be right.  It’s the indie version of a efficient franchise movie.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."