Aiming straight for the awkward, shuffling teenager in all of us, the 2013 Sundance pick The Way, Way Back opened in select theaters across the country on July 5. Boasting a welcome cast of experienced comedic faces, along with a few newcomers, the dramedy tells a simple story of summertime, divorce, healing, friendship and waterslides.
Back introduces us to the slightly off-kilter world of Duncan (Liam James, The Killing), a teenage misfit who is forced to spend the entire summer at the beach house of his recently divorced mom’s (Toni Collette, United States of Tara) new boyfriend (Steve Carell, The Office), who is a bit of a jerk.
As if that situation were not awkward enough, Duncan must also deal with flamboyant yet good-natured neighbors (Allison Janney, The West Wing), girl-next-door crushes and, overall, a life that seems to work better with him out of the picture. Yearning for a way to make it through the summer, Duncan lands a job at a laid-back water park, run by an easy going and unconventional manager (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2). It is here Duncan finds the friendship and strength to confront his home life and set it on the right track.
As with most independent films, the greatness of Back is found not in a multi-million dollar special effects budget, but in its cast and screenplay. James, a relatively new addition to the big screen, pulls off that quintessential nerdy outcast persona, with the awkward gait and cracking voice, making his character’s eventual transition into a more self-assured and outgoing person all the more noticeable. Despite James’s capable lead, the strength of the supporting performances ultimately makes the success of the film a group effort.
Together again for the first time since their starring roles in the 2006 breakout indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, Collette and Carell breathe life into the initially carefree but eventually tension-filled relationship between Duncan’s parental figures. Janney and Rockwell round out the main cast, with the former embodying the figure of the overly-tan yet no-nonsense “cool mom” with martini in hand, and the latter inspiring many of the films best comedic moments with his happy-go-lucky attitude. Together, this cast interacts in a way that is simply enjoyable to watch, reaching both dramatic and comedic heights through the power of their performances.
As always, a performance is only as good as the script it stems from, and fortunately for viewers, the screenplay of Back does not take itself too seriously, but rather plays to the strengths of its cast members. The one-liners are snappy and unpredictable, with a pace that keeps the film on its feet, and the drama, when it comes, is powerful in its simplicity. And simplicity is the key here.
With so many films like The Avengers and Man of Steel struggling so hard to reach an acceptable sense of authenticity through special effects, it seems almost laughable that a film such as this one could be more relatable to its audience, and at a fraction of the budget. But that is the strength of The Way, Way Back. It is not a spectacle, and its story is not even that complex, but it does capture your attention with its refreshing simplicity.