A month ago I went to the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee. They had some movies playing there and since I'm not a big music guy and I mostly wanted to go for the camping and travel experience (and the music did end up being outrageously awesome), I had the opportunity to watch some films I might not see otherwise. Aside from Sleepwalk with Me and the pilot for AMC's Low Winter Sun, writers/directors/actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's The Way, Way Back ended up being the most welcoming and pleasant surprise of a movie that I had seen in a while.
The story is a coming-of-age-during-the-summer sort of film in the vein of Greg Mottola's Adventureland with the occasional whimsy of John Hughes. Duncan (Liam James from AMC's The Killing) accompanies his mother (the always enjoyable Toni Collette) and her boyfriend (Steve Carell, cast against type as a bitter a-hole) to a summer vacation spot (reminds me of Montauk, where I spent many summers of my own youth). In the very first scene- Trent, the boyfriend, turns to Duncan while in the car on their way to the summer-home and tells Duncan that on a scale of 1-10, Duncan behaves like a 3. Duncan's mother is sleeping and Trent is driving, so the camera stays with Duncan. Starting with that moment, you start to realize that Liam James does an excellent job of conveying a boy who is out-of-place and socially awkward, but not to the point of over-exaggeration or annoyance. When he does speak and express himself more, it feels believable and not forced (take the nighttime BBQ argument). At no point do I feel like the character is going through the cliche paces of a traditional "kid learns to be accepted/others learn to accept the kid" sort of story, even though we are.
The film is certainly moving and like a previous script from Faxon and Rash, The Descendants, the film balances light/dark, drama/comedy, triumph/tragedy, etc. Certainly there is an aspect of the film that is typical and traditional, but the film is charming and heartwarming that what one might find cliche is overwhelmed by the tone and mood that the film projects. The cast is full of other recognizable faces- Faxon, Rash, Allison Janney (always a scene stealer), AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and most notably Sam Rockwell. An heir to Bill Murray, Rockwell has a timing and dedication that creates such a memorable performance and character. In fact, I only wish the film could keep his energy present throughout much more of the story. That being said, Faxon/Rash are great at their balancing act whether it's a depressing metaphor that takes place during a shoots and ladders game or the sheer fun of going down a water slide, they manage to get their points and story across well enough.