THE WAY, WAY BACK – The Sundance Review
Every year, there’s one movie that becomes what I like to call the “It” faux-indie. Faux-indies are the movies that try to approximate the sensibilities of low-budget films, often with directors and writers known for independent work, but feature decidedly mainstream, well-known actors. The overall effect is very odd, as the audience is being asked to see movie stars as normal human beings. Sometimes it works. More often, it doesn’t. In many ways, Sundance has become the poster child for premiering these kinds of films.
And a new trend has emerged in recent years. It seems that there’s always one particular faux-indie that garners lots of awards show attention, usually sweeping up a few Oscars. You know them: Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Kids Are All Right, The Descendants. Last year it was Silver Linings Playbook (although it’s a borderline case, as David O. Russell may officially be approaching mainstream director status). And I believe that The Way, Way Back has the strongest potential to be this year’s faux-indie champion – at least, of anything to come out of Sundance.
The film was written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won Oscars for writing The Descendants. The only newcomer in the cast is Liam James as main character Duncan, a shy kid who’s at a loss for things to do while on summer vacation at the beach. He’s stuck with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and not even the allure of cute neighbor girl Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) can shake him out of his funk. He finds a groove, though, when he starts working at a local water park, under dry-witted slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell). Over the course of the summer, Duncan slowly comes out of his shell at the park, even as he remains resolutely insular around his family.
The cast is solid, and the biggest strength in the movie’s arsenal. Carell is far and away the standout. While he’s tried to work against the Michael Scott image in his other film work, he’s done so by either playing up his goofballery or his sad-sackiness. But here, he instead escalates his inner jerk, and creates a truly loathsome character in Trent, who seems like an accumulation of every terrible step dad quality one can think of. He’s not a monster, though, just a really convincing asshole, able to work over others through vile passive-aggression. He feels eerily plausible as a result.
But no one is bad here. Collette does a great job of making sense of the fact that Pam is with Trent, and portrays a sympathetic, quiet desperation to just have a good time. Rockwell is very funny, even if he’s basically the archetypical indie trickster. Allison Janney is a lot of fun too, even though she’s going way, way, WAY broad and over-the-top as the family’s booze-loving neighbor. Actors like Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry also turn in minor but nice supporting turns.
It’s a pity that everyone is trapped in such a rigidly standard faux-indie story mold. These kinds of movies are always stuck in a weird place, somewhere between trying to portray life honestly (the indie ideal) and trying to sell an easy happy ending (the Hollywood ideal). The Way, Way Back is no different. There’s more than a few things that ring true about what it’s like to be an introverted teen in an extroverted environment. James sells it well, even if he feels interchangeable with any other skinny young awkward white guy protagonist. But every beat that you’d expect comes pretty much exactly when you’d predict it. And the overall impression feels false.
The Way, Way Back is solid. It’s nice. It is far from a great film, but farther from a bad one. There’s some good performances to savor, and sturdy writing to appreciate. It’s just such so thoroughly faux-indie. Also, I don’t really know what the title means. No one, at any point, talks about traveling back to anywhere, whether literally or metaphorically. *shrug*