Summer is in full swing, but sadly the same can’t be said for this year’s theatrical releases. Usually by this time of the year, at least a few films stand out as serious Oscar contenders. Unfortunately, cheap laughs, cheaper scripts, and costly explosions so prominent this summer have been met by a collective yawn from the Academy. But what if a director put down the guns, sharpened his script, and focused on the quality of the story rather than the back-end profits his extravagant special effects might bring?
Two directors decided to try, and the result is 2013 Sundance Film Festival selection “The Way, Way Back,” a heart-warming, hilarious coming-of-age tale that may just be the first serious candidate for the 2014 Academy Awards.
Liam James stars as Duncan, a mopey, awkward 14-year-old about to endure what he is sure will be the worst summer of his life with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter Caitlin (Zoe Levin) at Trent’s beach house. It wouldn’t be such a terrible way to spend three months if Trent weren’t such a bully, the neighbors weren’t so eager to get wasted, and Pam weren’t so oblivious to her son’s misery. But when local smart aleck Owen (Sam Rockwell) offers Duncan a job at his water park, he learns to loosen up and find the confidence to stand up for himself.
But he isn’t the only one whose self-assuredness shines through “The Way, Way Back,” which marks a significant step forward in the careers of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Both serve as writers, producers, actors, and – for the first time – directors. Their multitasking pays off handsomely, as the film they’ve created is a work of true cinematic art.
Its simplicity belies an authenticity that makes Faxon’s and Rash’s way all the more enjoyable. Their brilliant script balances hilarious one-liners with sincere heart-to-hearts so well, it’s not hard to believe the two won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Descendants” just two years ago. The light, indie pop soundtrack – including Rob Simonsen’s original pieces – provides a perfect backdrop, and cinematographer John Bailey makes even ordinary rides down a water slide artistic.
What stood out the most, however, was the entire cast’s quality performance. James is loveably awkward (maybe a bit too much so in the first act) and plays Duncan’s crush on Suzanna (AnnaSophia Robb) with a sweet, innocent admiration. Carell’s jerky Trent is a terrific departure from “The Office’s” goofily loveable Michael Scott (seriously, who would call anyone “a three?”) The humor is instead derived from Sam Rockwell, whose Owen shines with effortless charisma and easy wit. He even manages to steal the show from Allison Janney’s perpetually and hilariously drunk neighbor Betty.
What it lacks in typical summer special effects and intricate plot twists, “The Way, Way Back” more than makes up in unpretentious, clever charm—quite possibly everything that a summer movie, and an Oscar nominee, should be.
***** out of five