Thursday, July 18, 2013

Man on Film: The Way, Way Back

Perhaps my life of enabling the aquatic enjoyment of others combined with the sometimes crippling inferiority complex that I've dealt with on-and-off for the bulk of my life make me the extremely specific target audience for this film, but I was completely enamored with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's directorial debut, The Way, Way Back. Hot off their Oscar-winning scribe work on The Descendants, Faxon and Rash--soon to co-star in their own absurdist hour-long buddy cop dramedy on TNT that will be packaged with Franklin & Bash--elected to wade into the indie waters of the awkward coming-of-age flick.

Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb
Positioning Liam James--who already has quite an extensive resume having already worked on films including 2012 and Horsemen and series including Psych and The Killing at the age of just 16--front-and-center, Rash and Faxon put their young protagonist, Duncan through the emotional ringer of adolescence while trying to acclimate to divorce and his mother's new douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell) while at that boyfriend's beach house in the Northeast (presumably either the Cape or Long Island) for the summer. James is called upon to play the teen uncomfortable in his own skin, content to sit at home by himself rather than socialize with peers, who eventually comes into his own with the help of the social safety net provided him by his de facto mentor, Owen (Sam Rockwell)--his supervisor at the surreptitious summer job he gets at a run-down water park. As Duncan gradually grows more confident under the lead-by-example tutelage of the irreverent yet juvenile Owen, James sheds Duncan's timidity and awkwardness with aplomb.

To their credit, Faxon and Rash manage to expertly navigate tricky emotional waters, adroitly balancing the emotionally raw and painful with much-needed uproarious laughter. Rash and Faxon's decision to set the tale against the emotional backdrop of a mother (Pam, played by Toni Collette) and son still reeling from the divorce and essential abandonment of the husband and father is what gives the film its weight. Both are damaged, and James and Collette both thrive in their roles as the fragile, beleaguered survivors. As the stunted boyfriend, Trent, Carell channels Michael Scott at his most odious and petty and infuses it with a cocksure swagger masking his deeper insecurities. While entirely unlikable, Carell does good work here, making his early exit from The Office retroactively rewarding (at least for those of whom thought Michael Scott should have stayed on the show despite the fact that the character really had nowhere else to go).

Where The Way, Way Back's dramatic core sits mostly in the seasonal cottage abode of the makeshift family--there is a pretty distinct dichotomy in the film's two spheres that only Duncan and eventually the two neighbor kids, Peter and Duncan's love interest, Susanna, played by AnnaSophia Robb [pictured above] are able to traverse until the final act--Duncan's clandestine work world is where the film's humor is mostly injected (not to take away from Allison Janney's turn as the terrible drunk mother at the beach house next door, which is largely hilarious). The color, the heart, and the joy of the film all comes from the weird world of Water Wizz. Stacked with accomplished comedic character actors (Maya Rudolph, Rockwell, Rash, and Faxon), Water Wizz is the almost forgotten water park staffed by adults whose development was arrested and who could never quite bring themselves to leave the job that was at least as much fun as it ever was work. [Again, I'm kind of the target niche demographic for this movie (there was even a time when a fellow lifeguard and I entertained the notion of moving to the Wisconsin Dells and working at Noah's Ark for the summer).] Faxon, Rash, and Rudolph all do their thing exceptionally well, but to actually buy into the film completely, one needs to have Rockwell kill. He does. Rockwell's Owen acutely intuits that Duncan needs a bit of guidance, and while he never comes out and tells Duncan that he'll take him under his wing, he builds up Duncan's self-esteem like an older brother, or really, like a father. He's far from perfect, but if it isn't for Owen as the mentor, Duncan doesn't come out of this film emboldened. Water Wizz is where Duncan gets to start his life anew, breaking forth from the chrysalis of pubescence and paternal abandonment.

If anyone doubted how much of an imprint Faxon and Rash had on The Descendants, those nagging questions can likely be put to rest. The Way, Way Back has every bit the heart that The Descendants had. Faxon and Rash masterfully tug at the heartstrings while avoiding being overtly manipulative, somehow mining a rich vein of emotional pain within me that I thought had been tapped out ages ago and allowing me come out on the other side both intensely happy and very sad. It is rare that a movie makes me feel anything as much as The Way, Way Back did, but it's a testament to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's deft touch as burgeoning filmmakers, a path that I personally hope is a long and fruitful one.


Young Man Duggan said...

"Rockwell's Owen acutely intuits that Duncan needs a bit of guidance, and while he never comes out and tells Duncan that he'll take him under his wing, he builds up Duncan's self-esteem like an older brother"

You say this like you have experience building up a little brother's self-esteem...

Josh Duggan said...

Awesome comment, bro.

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