I like the way way that indie cinema has lately managed to retain the characteristics that set indie pics apart from commercial movies, but jettisoned the notion that happy or uplifting endings are too unrealistic, too Hollywood.
And I like the way that major studios are meeting indie films halfway, both by devoting a sub-brand to indie films (like Fox Searchlight Pictures or Sony Pictures Classics) and by incorporating more of the quirkiness and subtle comedy of indie pics into their mainstream projects.
“The Way Way Back” feels like that kind of hybrid. Advertised as being “from the studio that brought you ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Juno,’” this 2013 dramedy starring Steve Carell and Toni Collette (who also worked together in “Little Miss Sunshine”) shows that filmmakers aren’t afraid to work the other way as well—infusing an essentially indie film with “slick” formulaic elements from mainstream cinema. It feels like the best of both worlds.
The infusers-in-chief are co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Descendants”), who also team together as first-time directors and pace this thing perfectly.
Liam James stars as Duncan, an awkward, brooding 14 year old whose teen years are being made even more of a torment by the man his mother (Collette) is dating. In an opening sequence, as the blended family (him, her, his daughter, her son) drives in a big boat of a station wagon to the Cape Cod vacation home the man inherited from his parents, the boy is shown sullenly riding in the “way way back”—a seat that faces the car’s back window. Trent (Carell) prods him to give an honest appraisal of himself:
“On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?”
“I think you’re a 3.”
The man’s daughter obviously agrees, because when they land she refuses to show him any kindness. Forced to take him to the beach, she marginalizes him and makes him walk 10 paces behind her and sit far away from her and her friends.
That sets the tone for his level of interaction with this group and provides a pretty clear picture of why he’d want to get away—even if it means pedaling off on an old pink girl’s bicycle with a basket and streamers hanging from the angel bars.
In town he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who’s either a man who refuses to grow up or a free spirit, depending upon your point of view—the woman he’s been seeing (Maya Rudolph), or young Duncan, who so desperately needs an adult to show him the way:
“Serious, when’s the last time you bought jeans?”
“My mom buys my jeans.”
“Good. Always take things literally. How’s that working out for you?”
Owen appears to have inherited a water park because he lives above it and despite a lack of responsibility seems never in danger of losing his job—and he has the authority to hire Duncan. “The Way Way Back” bounces amiably back and forth between these two worlds that Duncan inhabits during a summer in which Owen helps him come out of the shell that Trent keeps forcing him back into.
Also thrown into the mix is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of the divorced couple who own the summer home next door. She’s seen it all, and explains the adults’ erratic behavior to him in one sweet sentence: “It’s like spring break for adults.” She should know. Her mother (Allison Janney) has been on perpetual spring break since her father left.
If Janney doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I’ll be surprised. She plays an alcoholic good-time Betty in a way that we haven’t really seen in a long time: as lovable, energetic, but (of course) deeply troubled people whose drinking is the band-aid that keeps all of the bad things from spilling out. Janney is the most believable tipsy woman I’ve seen in the movies in a long, long time, but she stops way short of being an obnoxious drunk. That’s a tough line to walk (yes, pun intended), but she pulls it off.
Both Rash and Faxon appear as actors as well, with Rash getting the best character—an adult version of Duncan in the future, if someone like Owen wasn’t there this summer to intervene, and someone like Susanna wasn’t there to offer support.
“The Way Way Back” is a sharply written comedy that’s full of wise and wise-guy moments.
The production values of this film are terrific. There were no problems with an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc, and while there was a slight filmic quality “The Way Way Back” is a slick-looking film that pops with color and detail. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at a long shot, medium shot, or close-up. This film looks great from all angles, presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an equally slick English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that has the purest tone and dialogue I’ve heard in a while in an indie film. The effects come alive, too, with decent surround directionality—though don’t expect much bass. This is, after all, a dialogue- and background music-driven film. Additional audio options are in English Descriptive and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and French DTS 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
The bonus features are slight, though. All we get are a handful of featurettes that thankfully have a play-all option, because they run a total of just 31 minutes. Like the film, though, these short interviews and clips (including some storyboards) make for an enjoyable 31 minutes. In addition there are another 20 minutes of bonus features that include several deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and three behind-the-scenes blurbs on the filmmakers, the ensemble cast, and the water park.
“The Way Way Back” is an enjoyable relationship comedy-drama that seems best shelved under “comedy.” It’s consistently funny while also being poignant and semi-serious. Rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, language, some sexual content, and brief drug material,” “The Way Way Back” seems like a perfect blend of indie and mainstream elements.