Monday, October 21, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Way Way Back


I watched many good films this week, but the one that left the biggest impression was "The Way Way Back". Chronicling a summer in the life of a lonely, awkward teenager named Duncan (Liam James), this endearing story wore down the cynic in me and won me over. It's a comedy so forthright with its sweetness, it's a minor miracle that it still manages to feel so genuine and true to life.
The film opens with a jarring scene that introduces our main antagonist Trent, played by Steve Carell (shockingly believable as an arrogant stud). He is the new boyfriend of Duncan's mom Pam (Toni Colette) and he is driving them to his beach house for the summer vacation. Along the way (with Pam fast asleep), he asks Duncan to reveal his opinion of himself, on a scale of 1 to 10. Upon replying with the number 6, Trent rebukes him, saying that he's a 3 due to his underdeveloped social skills. Trent further remarks that the experiences Duncan will have in this crucial summer will greatly improve his character. Of course, it's an insensitive way of getting this point across, but there's a truth to it that succinctly sets up the film's themes.
Indeed, we soon realize that Duncan is incredibly awkward, painfully so at times. As the viewer, you'd even want to shake him out of his self-imposed dullness. Fortunately for him, he'll soon get a wake up call from a welcoming stranger named Owen. Played with affable charm by Sam Rockwell, he's a fascinating character to compare with Trent. Even as the script sets up Trent as the villain, Owen isn't all that different. He points out Duncan's lacking sense of humour and his shyness and forces him into uncomfortable situations. However, the different approaches (serious vs playful) by these two men with equal intentions, have vastly different effects on this impressionable young man. It's this attention to character detail and truthful screenwriting that makes this screenplay so admirable. Owen is obviously the inspirational father figure type in this story, but the writers are smart enough to avoid the cliches. There are no "seize the day" pep talks or declarations of love, just endearing expressions of humanity and kindness. He simply spends quality time with Duncan, giving him a summer job at the local water park and ample opportunities for social interaction.
The film shines on these finely written characters, all rendered with superb acting. Apart from Carrell, James and Rockwell, there are standout performances from Allison Janney and Toni Collette. As one of the neighbours in this beach town, Janney's character is similar to Trent, in that she's unafraid to speak her mind. In particular, she never hesitates to point out her own son's physical flaw - his crossed eyes. However, she's also just as expressive with her affections towards him. She's such a welcome scene-stealing presence in the film.
Last but certainly not least, Toni Collette is outstanding as Pam, a woman coming to terms with her failed romantic relationships. Much like her impressive turn in "About a Boy", she has an amazing ability to convey fragility with minimal effort. In a film that already has a lot going for it, she really does make it that much richer.
Many would label this as a coming of age story, but I don't think it's as ambitious as that description usually implies. Duncan's character arc relates to that universal desire to be a better version of ourselves, whether young or old. It's this unabashed optimism that makes "The Way Way Back" such pleasant viewing. It's a film with an important message, delivered with skill by a fine ensemble and a winning script. Taken from the lyrics of the film's end credits song, I'll leave you with that final note - Go where the love is.

11 comments:

  1. This was a really nice film, and though I didn't initially walk away from it thinking much else, you do bring up several good points that show just how many nice, genuine little touches this movie made. Great review! :D

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  2. Great review. I loved it as it kept me smiling from start to finish.

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  3. I totally agree! I was really impacted by this films strong opening scene, as well. You could feel the audience in the room immediately get on Duncan's side, but it also makes you curious about Steve Carrell's character and what exactly has made him into the kind of man he is. Great review Shane!

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    1. Thanks Kate! Carrell's character really is fascinating. I was fascinated by how empathetic I felt towards him, even in his worst moments.

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  4. What a cast! Not only does everybody seem like they're on the same page with this script, but they also all bring a little something more to the table each time they have something to do. Especially Rockwell, who needs an Oscar now!! Nice review Shane.

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    1. Such a great ensemble indeed. Very cohesive as you pointed out.

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  5. This is the second awesome review I've read of this film today and I can't wait to see this. Great review, Shane, and interesting point about it not being a coming–of–age film. Will definitely keep an eye out for that

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    1. Thanks. You should definitely look out for it.

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