You can still put a price on a great script in Hollywood. The Way Way Back was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and then the distribution rights were auctioned off to Fox Searchlight for a little under $10 million dollars. The bidding was described by the Los Angeles Times as: "In what could be one of the richest deals in Sundance Film Festival history". This proves two things. Fox were rightly confident in the film's quality, it's an excellent movie, and that studios are willing to pay big dollars for films with great scripts because of how rare they are today.
However, this is a film made by smart people. After winning an Oscar for writing The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash make their directional debuts, along with co-scripting the film and featuring in small roles too. They prove here they are as talented behind the camera, working closely with young and seasoned actors to enrich a story that is partly a coming of age tale but also critical about the juvenility of its adult characters too. For a film that only cost $4 million dollars to make, I found this funnier and outrightly more enjoyable than any major blockbuster released during the American summer this year.
Liam James plays Duncan, a fourteen year old boy who is spending his summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan and Trent don't get along because Trent is critical of him and isn't sensitive to how shy and subdued he is. They're also surrounded by kooky neighbours, including the hilariously outspoken Betty (Allison Janney), who has a son with a lazy eye and a daughter named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Trent is also spending too much time with his friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). To make the most of his time, Duncan visits a waterslide park and is nurtured by Owen (Sam Rockwell) who works there. Owen encourages him to loosen up and have more fun, despite his own fluctuating relationship with his boss Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who questions his responsibility and work ethic.
The strength of the script is that it realises that there is something to be lost if Duncan were not to blossom while he is still young. He is surrounded by adult characters that are complacent, jealous and disappointed with their lives. Several of the characters in the film are also divorcees and brush with infidelity too, which heightens the film's awareness of people becoming desperate in unhappy situations. The film achieves a dual layering. It is a coming of age story but it never over or underplays its sadder impression of an incompatible family unit and how people make wrong choices when their lives appear to be in stasis. The film's opening image is a static medium close-up of Duncan sitting alone in the car, which underscores his immobility and lack of self-belief.
Countering its somewhat bleaker subtext, the film is written with great flair and some hilariously funny dialogue. I particularly liked the line where Betty says that her gay ex-husband's favourite view of her was the back of her head. Together, Faxon and Rash have also done a terrific job in providing each character with a unique voice. This is due to how well-chosen the actors are and how convincingly they inhabit their characters. Liam James is astonishingly good at expressing Duncan's feelings through his slumped and disengaged body language and monotone voice. This is until he takes responsibility for his own life and grows more confident in his skin and finds a gentle bond of commonality with the beautiful Susanna.
On either side of him are two men with contrasting acting styles and dialogue rhythms. Steve Carell is uncharacteristically serious and rigid as Trent, who is overly harsh in singling out Duncan, but we understand that he wants to instill rules into him. He's just stubborn and terrible at empathising with other people. Sam Rockwell as the slacker Owen snatches the movie with one of the funniest, most energised, manic performances I've seen all year. His jokes and sarcasm are fast and loose and earned the biggest laughs at the screening. Significantly, he adds the right dosage of kindness to his character, without becoming overly sentimental either. Toni Collette has a comparatively small role, but it's an expressive, pivotal one that requires her clearly uncomfortable character to make a serious choice about her own unhappy life.
This hilarious, warm and surprisingly touching film is proof that there is still value in small, human comedy-dramas and that they don't necessarily have to break the bank. It's heartening to see a script of this quality can still be produced and supported by Hollywood heavyweights. Yet there's also a somber melancholy that this retreat away is ready to end and we'll be returning to our ordinary cinema lives of robots, ninjas and superheroes. If only the vacation could last a little longer.