Nat Faxon and Jim Rash earned Oscars (along with Alexander Payne) for adapting the novel The Descendants. The duo's directorial debut, the coming-of-age comedy-drama The Way, Way Back, is an original, but it feels like it's based on a very good young-adult novel.
The movie stars Liam James as Duncan, a withdrawn 14-year-old forced to visit the summer beach house belonging to Trent (Steve Carell), the current boyfriend of his recently divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette). Trent and Duncan don't get along at all, so the teen explores the seaside town he's stuck in and discovers a water park run by Owen (Sam Rockwell), a charming, roguish dude who approaches life with all the seriousness of a class clown.
As the summer goes on, Duncan learns a secret about Trent, falls in love with his new neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and gets a chance to build some self-worth thanks to Owen's paternal interest in him.
As screenwriters, Faxon and Rash have crafted a predictable but solid story: There are few surprises, as well as too many scenes in which Duncan conveniently overhears other people's conversations. However, as directors, they've cast the film to perfection and let their talented actors find the truth in scenes that may lack originality but not likability. Carell plays against type engagingly, Allison Janney lets it all hang out as Trent's booze-swilling neighbor, Maya Rudolph has a couple of key scenes as Owen's long-suffering significant other, and AnnaSophia Robb adroitly plays a dream girl without making her seem unattainable or unreal.
However, in a cast overloaded with charismatic performers, Sam Rockwell, an actor who isn't nearly as well-known as he deserves to be, walks off with the whole movie. Owen is a dream role model for any frustrated and scared young teen. From his ease with one-liners to his resounding disinterest in authority and supercool job, he's the kind of motormouthed man-child that Rockwell was born to play. What sets Owen apart from most of Rockwell's other roles is that he's also a ceaselessly warm and caring guy. Owen is to The Way, Way Back what Fonzie was to Happy Days or Kurt is to Glee -- a breakout character who gives every scene he's in, and even some of the ones he's not, a welcome blast of unexpected energy, and Rockwell is magnetically charming throughout.
Released in the midst of the annual summer-blockbuster season, The Way, Way Back swims against the tide. It's an endearingly modest small-scale film that lets its actors shine, portends a promising career for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as directors, and will hopefully get Sam Rockwell the awards buzz he's richly deserved for years. leave a comment --Perry Seibert