A couple of years ago, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were two improv and comedy actors who’d had bit parts in a few movies and TV shows. Then they co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s amazing what an Academy Award can do, because less than two years later, their screenplay that had been in various stages of development hell for almost a decade not only got green lit, it not only got made, but Faxon and Rash even got to direct The Way Way Back.
Until he meets Owen, a fun loving slacker who refuses to grow up, played by Sam Rockwell. Owen also happens to run the local water park and soon enough employs Duncan. His life is then split into two, the acceptance, happiness and growing confidence of the water park, and the nightmare of being stuck with the adults who use their holiday as a chance to drink and toke their way back to their younger heydays.
As two dudes approaching forty, Faxon and Rash manage to create world obviously based on their own 80s childhoods, while still setting it in the present day. Little things like Carell driving a Griswald style family wagon he refers to as a ‘classic’ and Duncan singing along to an REO Speedwagon classic he claims his mum must have put on his iPod give a real 80s feel to their 2013 world. Rockwell’s character, being around the same age as Faxon and Rash, simply lives like his life and interests haven’t changed since he was 14 himself. Rockwell is also probably the only actor good enough and likeable enough to make this cliched of a character work.
There are times when you can see the screenplay grasping for the heartstrings and pulling has hard as it can, but the few overly corny moments are far outweighed by the smaller, more natural ones, uplifting and depressing. The opening scene when Carell rates his possible step son as a 3 out of 10 lets you know not that only is Carell breaking type and going for a real level of extreme ass holery, but also that Duncan isn’t just a typical mopey kid. He has real reasons to be such a downer, which makes even the hokiest scenes with Rockwell seem OK.
In a lot of ways, The Way Way Back is a collection of clichés and tropes you’ve seen plenty of times before, but it’s also a new twist on most of them. For every over the top, cornball character or plot point, you get something small, real and not often seen in movies, like the relationship between Duncan and his neighbour (‘romance’ is too strong a word for what happens). It’s small movie telling a small story, but at least it does it pretty well.