At the Sundance Film Festival, it’s important to consider the sequence of movies you’re seeing.  Odds are you’ll want to save something pleasant, uplifting, or fun for the end.  That way you can walk away with a positive feeling, instead of being weighed down by the heavy subject matter that’s typical of Sundance dramas.  Thankfully, Oscar winners Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (The Descendantsbrought their years in the making passion project The Way, Way Back.  This charming coming of age story has been one of the more popular films of the festival.  Check out the review to find out why!

The Players

Synopsis

Sullen 14 year-old Duncan (James), while on summer vacation with his divorced mom (Collette) and her smarmy boyfriend (Carell), meets local celebrity Owen (Rockwell), who offers him a job at his water park.  As the summer goes on, Duncan is drawn out of his glum shell, and learns to assert himself and find his own path to happiness.

The Good

  • Palatable - The Way, Way Back is extremely watchable.  Faxon & Rash have a remarkably sensitive and humane compassion when it comes to writing their characters and comedy.  There is nothing deliberately mean about any of these characters, and almost nothing that happens comes at the expense of people’s feelings, leaving us to simply enjoy the ride.  Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, and Faxon and Rash (who cast themselves in small supporting roles), bring strong humor to the film, but also manage to ground it with believable personality and feeling.
  • Sam Rockwell  - Rockwell absolutely owns this movie.  He’s usually the saving grace of whatever film he’s in (let’s just pretend Cowboys & Aliens never happened), but this movie really lets his trademark goofy and sarcastic charm shine.  Though there are moments at which we’re left wondering “Why would this man take this kid under his wing?” they only come after his scenes are finished, because he’s so engaging on camera that nothing matters but how well he drives the movie, as well as Duncan’s growth, along.  His also brings a self-awareness to his performance, but not in a “meta” kind of way.  It’s more of a guarded cognizance of this character’s lot in life, and awareness of reasons for his immaturity.  While the story of the film revolves around Liam James’ Duncan, Rockwell’s Owen is the real heart of this movie.

The Bad

  • Formulaic – The structure of the film feels fairly elementary.  There’s nothing innovative about it, and especially by its resolution, it feels as if you’ve watched any other movie with a similar tone.  This includes films many of these actors have already starred in, like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, or even Choke.  This is the flip side of the coin about its comfort and ease; it’s because it’s so familiar already.  It comes off as substantially less mature than their award winning effort in The Descendants.
  • Low Stakes - The central conflict of this movie is that Duncan is basically bereft of personality, and struggles to put himself forward and behave confidently.  Although this does resonate well with anyone who had an awkward adolescence (i.e. most living humans), it’s not as if there’s anything on the line if he fails along the way.  Even the most mature story line in the film, the strife between Collette and Carell in their budding post-divorce relationship, doesn’t ring out as especially threatening to either of their lives or emotional states.

Overall

The Way, Way Back  is certainly enjoyable and charming enough to justify a wide release to broad audiences, and its quirky cast and sensitive performances make it a strong fit for the Sundance Film Festival.  Though this story of family dynamics may not be as emotionally powerful as Rash & Faxon’s celebrated previous work, it definitely will help to counteract any bad vibes you carry into the theater, and have you leaving with a warm fuzzy feeling in or around your heart.

Rating: 7/10