Expectation was understandably high for screenwriting duo Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s directorial debut The Way Way Back but their skill at scripting is diluted by inexperience at the helm.
The Way, Way Back, is like a box of Quality Street. Similar to the assortment of confectionery, there are treats that tantalise and invigorate the senses mixed up with those that I’d prefer to spit back out. In fact, with something for everybody in this rites of passage comedy-drama about an awkward, insular teenager coming out of his self-constructed shell, you might wonder why it doesn’t satisfy. But its strengths are also its weaknesses; the collection of ideas and familial dramas not satisfactorily coming together to form a cohesive whole.
As a huge fan of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, a film based on the accomplished screenplay by The Way, Way Back’s directing first-timers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, I was understandably excited about their follow-up project. The Way, Way Back sees the duo in familiar territory, mixing an emotionally disruptive event in a family’s life with moments of frivolity; lighter touches carving through the dark. Like The Descendants, which deals with the aftermath of tragedy and how the revelations of a wife’s affair impacts the relationship between her husband and their kids, Faxon and Rash’s debut as directors focuses on 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who isolates himself while holidaying with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her straight-talking new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell).
Reluctantly forced to join Pam at Trent’s beach house near Cape Cod for summer vacation, Duncan’s social inertia is compounded by Trent’s putdowns. It doesn’t help that Trent’s spoilt daughter dismisses him, while Pam’s determination to make this new family unit work drives a wedge through his own relationship with her. He manages to find refuge at the nearby water park where he meets devil-may-care free spirit Owen (Sam Rockwell) who employs him as a park attendant. It is this relationship – fostered between the wayward teenager and the reckless allure of his superior – that delivers the film’s best moments.
Indeed, it is where The Way, Way Back really finds its sweet-spot. Coupled with Sam Rockwell’s brilliant turn as Owen, the Water Whizz’s unconventional manager, the blossoming friendship sees Duncan find respite from the trials of home thanks to a man who clearly sees something of himself in the teenager. The funniest scenes in the film appear with these two characters at the centre of the action largely due to Rockwell’s roguish performance.
Yet, while Rockwell is perfectly cast, Carell is less comfortable as a womanising straight man. It means that when Duncan is back at the beach house trying to play happy families, Faxon and Rash’s film shifts unwittingly into a lower gear. It also highlights the directors’ inexperience as they uncomfortably shift the tone to more sobering events. There isn’t a real sense of nuance to their shades of light and dark. Trent’s public accusation that Duncan’s father wants nothing to do with him at a busy party admittedly hits hard but its ferocity is somewhat castrated by slapstick comedy that, while being momentarily funny in its own right, dilutes the dramatic authenticity of the film.
Unable to strike a balance between what becomes two distinct parts: Duncan’s life at the water park, and his time at the beach house, Faxon and Rash, who also give themselves small roles, example why their screenplay needed a more seasoned director. There’s a self-consciousness to proceedings that begins with their appearances and continues through an inability to refine their own work.
A scene involving Duncan, for example, sees him busting some moves with a bunch of street-dancers after being tasked to stop them performing inside the water park. It’s supposed to be quirky and amusing (exampling the teenager’s own awkwardness through dance), a prelude to the adolescent finding a self-confidence he didn’t know he had, but what might have sounded good on paper is completely phony as a finished product. It’s like expecting the audience to believe the antidote to familial trauma is the jangly guitar of soft-rock playing as Duncan enjoys a sun-kissed bike-ride to work. I get the metaphor – it’s all about journeys, pursuing your own path, etc., – but I’m only willing to buy into it if there’s not a nagging artificiality dragging at its heels.
It’s a shame because when The Way, Way Back is good, it’s really, very good. Rockwell has been this delightful before but the character Faxon and Rash have given him here fits perfectly. Bouncing off his protégé Duncan, the film strikes a neat balance between the generations – the guider and the guided – creating a bittersweet pathos that displays, in fits and starts, just how good this film could have been.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Written by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet
Released: 2013 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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The Way, Way Back was viewed courtesy of Amazon Instant Video.