May 30, 2013

THE WAY WAY BACK Perfectly Captures Those Cape Cod Summers #IFFB

"No patterns on my quarter."
Winter in Boston is the worst.  Yes, the city looks gorgeous immediately following a snowfall, but that lovely white dusting quickly turns into puddles of soaking grey slush.  The temperature drops well below freezing, the wind will slice through all your five layers of clothing and your face turns raw and chapped moments after stepping outdoors.  As an added bonus, Boston's weather is so unpredictable that every year runs the risk that the winter will simply never end.  When I was in middle school, we had a blizzard that knocked out power in most of my town on April Fools Day.  Two years ago, a particularly nasty blizzard dumped about four feet of snow on us shortly after Thanksgiving and it didn't diminish until long after the official first day of spring.  Hilariously, the crushing humidity of summer can be just as bad, but the heat is far more manageable than the cold.  Summer brings baseball, barbecues and most importantly, beaches.  When residents look to flee the sticky mess of downtown in favor of ocean breezes, there are two options: head north toward the fishing town of Gloucester (made famous in The Perfect Storm) or head south towards Cape Cod.  Yes, like the potato chips.

I spent the first 20 summers of my life on Cape Cod.  My family has had a house down there since long before I was born, and while that might sound awesome it didn't always feel that way.  The Cape is certainly quaint and scenic, but there isn't actually a whole lot to do down there when you're a kid.  Once you've been to the beach, played golf (miniature or otherwise) and eaten some fried clams and lobster, your options start to seriously dwindle...especially when you're below the drinking age.  All that would probably be somewhat mitigated if you had a solid group of friends with whom to laze away the afternoons.  I've always been fairly outspoken once you get to know me, but years of being the oddball in school made it hard for me to introduce myself to kids out of the blue.  This meant I never really had a lot of "Cape friends."  Besides, our neighborhood always felt like it was largely populated by retirees, young couples and very small children, which made for some lonely teenage summers.  I ended up spending a lot of time with my family, lying on the beach reading while listening to mixtapes on my headphones.  That explains why I usually returned to school in September having read so many more books than the majority of my classmates.

I therefore found plenty to identify with in Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's The Way Way Back.  Their depiction of Cape life is wholly accurate, which is little surprise considering that they filmed on location and that Faxon himself is from northern Massachusetts.  I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories in general, but a coming-of-age story that takes place where I actually came of age is practically a slam dunk.  Duncan (Liam James) and his mom Pam (Toni Collette) are headed down the Cape to spend the summer at the house of her boyfriend Trent (a bearded, asshole Steve Carrell).  Duncan is quiet and a little withdrawn in the face of his parents' divorce (he spends the car ride down sitting alone in "the way way back", a.k.a. the backwards facing flip-up seat in the trunk of a station wagon, a.k.a. my favorite seat growing up) and it doesn't help that Trent is a total dick.  When they arrive, Trent's older daughter falls in with her normal summer friends while Pam is quickly assimilated into Trent's crowd of heavy drinking neighbors, including a couple played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet plus the over-the-top recent divorcee next door played by a pitch perfect Allison Janney.  Duncan is therefore left stranded with no one around but Janney's cross-eyed son and stammer-inducing daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a popular girl who's got a bit of an independent streak in light of her own family's drama.

The film really kicks into gear when Duncan wanders into Water Wizz*, a local waterpark run by Sam Rockwell's fast-talking slacker Owen.  He takes a liking to the kid and gives Duncan a job at the park, which is staffed by a colorful cast of characters including Maya Rudolph and writer/directors Rash and Faxon.  (Rash is best known as Community's Dean Pelton, while Faxon was the co-star of the underrated Fox comedy Ben & Kate.)  Duncan, feeling ignored while they adults cut loose for the summer, keeps the job a secret from his family and while his time at Water Wizz slowly coaxes him out of his shell (he gets the awesome nickname Pop 'N Lock after facing off with some rogue breakdancers) he gains the confidence to assert himself at home and stand up to Trent, who turns out to be an even bigger asshole than anticipated.

The script is not only flat out hilarious, but it's also endlessly quotable - hardly a surprise from Rash and Faxon who rightly won an Oscar for their script for The Descendants.  It certainly helps that the film is overstuffed with comic talent like Rockwell, Carrell, Corddry, Janney and Rudolph.  I'm sure they'll be pimping out Carrell in a few weeks when it comes time for serious marketing, but his Trent is pretty dry and hardly the star of the show.  The real laughs come from Sam Rockwell, whose endless stream of cutting one-liners absolutely bowled me over.  Rockwell not only has incredible comedy chops, but he's truly remarkable late in the film when Owen really embraces the surrogate father role.  I simply cannot understand why this guy is not a bigger star, as there's seemingly nothing he can't do.  And special mention must be made of Allison Janney, who simply kills in every one of her scenes as the manic, usually drunken neighbor Betty.  While she's constantly teasing her kids, (there are some great cross-eyed zingers) you can see the real love that's bubbling just below the surface.  Janney's an absolute tidal wave of boozy charm that washes over you and leaves you breathless with laughter in her wake.

But the heart of the film is Liam James, who can also be seen on AMC's The Killing, a show that is amazingly returning to television this Sunday despite being cancelled last year.  James brings a lot of soul to the part; whereas Duncan could have very easily spent the first half of the movie as a total sad sack (he wears jeans to the beach!) instead he comes off as more of a lovable basset hound - sad looking on the outside but downright playful underneath.  There are lots of great little moments, like Duncan lying on the hood of Trent's car and singing along to REO Speedwagon, that bring real dimension to the character.  James also serves as a perfect foil for Rockwell, the straight man to Owen's constant wisecracks.  In a lot of ways Duncan reminds me of myself at that age, and if my parents had gotten divorced when I was that young I probably would have reverted inwards in much the same manner.

More than anything else I'm happy to see such a solid directorial debut from Jim Rash and Nat Faxon.  It's the kind of crowd pleaser that I suspect will serve as the stepping stone to greenlighting an even more ambitious project down the road.  It also feels like a very personal film for these guys, and not just because I am at the center bullseye of their target demographic.  IFFB packed the large main theater for this screening and, unsurprisingly, it won the room over and then some.  (Granted there were a number of local crew members in attendance, but still...)  Obviously this is the kind of film that's going to be very well received in Massachusetts and the movie will play very well to anyone who's ever experienced a summer on Cape Cod.  That said, a New England residency is hardly required to appreciate the joys inherent of The Way Way Back.  It's all just texture for one of the most entertaining coming-of-age stories in recent memory.

This is a wonderful summer flick that's deserving of your attention.  I have no idea how widely Fox Searchlight plans to market the movie but it comes out July 4th weekend and, with the only other major releases that weekend of pretty dubious quality (The Lone Ranger and Despicable Me 2), The Way Way Back should serve as a refreshing alternative for audiences burnt out on big screen spectacle.  I'll be championing the film BIG time until then and I'll be more than happy to put my wallet where my mouth is when it finally appears at my local theater once again.

*Water Wizz is a real park in Wareham that I've been to many times.  Not changing the name of the park is a smart move, both for the movie and for the park's ticket sales.

Title: The Way Way Back
Directors: Jim Rash, Nat Faxon
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston

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