News Column

'The Way, Way Back,' an engrossing, honest coming-of-age dramedy

July 7, 2013

YellowBrix

July 07--Puberty is terrifying enough, especially for boys of a more bookish nature. Throw in an absent father and a mother who's shacking up with a pushy know-it-all, and you have the perfect recipe for the teenage equivalent of the inferno.

Or, as in the case of The Way, Way Back, it's the recipe for a perfect coming-of-age dramedy.

Featuring a remarkable cast of TV and film actors, The Way, Way Back is an engrossing, emotionally rich, and brutally honest story about Duncan (Liam James), a painfully shy, withdrawn, nerdy 14-year-old boy who has to spend a summer with his single mom, Pam (Toni Collette) and her beau Trent at his Massachusetts beach house. The film opens Friday.

Played with remarkable precision by Steve Carell, Trent is an overbearing, aggressively friendly car salesman and single father who livens up the house by bringing his beer-drinking, pot-smoking, narcissistic daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).

Duncan's misery begins to lift when he strikes up a friendship with local water park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), a kidult who seems immune to sorrow, loneliness, and self-doubt. To Duncan, he's Superman.

The Way, Way Back was cowritten and codirected by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won an Academy Award for best screenplay for their 2011 adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel The Descendants.

The duo have been friends and acting and writing partners since they met 15 years ago as young apprentices at the Los Angeles improvisational and sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings.

They worked with the group for 10 years before striking out on their own as actors.

Rash, 42, is perhaps best known for his role as Dean Pelton on NBC's Community, while Faxon, born one year after his friend, plays the lead on the Fox sitcom Ben and Kate.

They continued to write.

"We'd done a lot of dumb bits together, some good, some bad," Faxon says over Rash's laughter, "and then really over one summer, it was 2005-ish, we decided to write something bigger than three-minute sketches."

They penned a failed pilot for ABC, and followed it up with the screenplay for The Way, Way Back.

It almost got made eight years ago. "It got around town [in Hollywood] and it would go up and down on a roller coaster, with different studios and different directors, and then the economy turned everything around," Rash says.

But their script was impressive enough to open other doors. "So really this got us the Descendants job," adds Rash.

In turn, the success of The Descendants gave the duo enough industry juice to get their teen film produced and to be given the director's job.

They assembled their dream cast, which also includes Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, and Amanda Peet.

But the film is carried by James, a 16-year-old Canadian actor who brings a rare intensity and physicality to his role as Duncan.

His posture, his every step and gesture, suggests he's imploding, his body closing in on itself.

"He walked into the [audition] room with that stature. It was just so instinctive," Rash says, "which proclaimed to us he's an old soul."

Duncan's pain is center stage in the opening scene.

Sitting at the way, way back -- the seat at the back of a station-wagon that faces the sitter out the tailgate window -- Duncan is torn out of his reverie when Trent asks him how he would rate himself.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you see yourself?" the middle-aged man asks the child. "Six," Duncan says after much hesitation. Trent half-suppresses a sarcastic smile as he announces, "I think you're a 3." Ouch! This guy wants to be the kid's dad?

The scene is autobiographical, says Rash.

"It happened when I was 14 and I was in the station wagon, in the way, way back . . . and my stepfather had that conversation with me verbatim."

Trent's misdemeanors multiply rapidly during the faux family's vacation. Yet Rash and Faxon resist the suggestion that one can simply dismiss him as a villain.

"We talked a lot about the fact that he is more complicated than just being a villain or a demon," says Faxon. "He is charming and likable -- how else would Toni Collette be interested in him?"

Rash says that despite his crude approach, Trent is trying to inspire Duncan to get out of his head and enjoy the world.

"He considers his lesson at the beginning to be a good one," Rash says. "Just as my stepfather told me, 'You know there are so many great things you could explore.' "

By film's end, Duncan has begun to come out of his shell, which suggests he has taken Trent's lesson to heart.

His transformation -- his maturation -- is subtle, but a joyous thing to behold.

The Way, Way Back

Opens Friday at the Ritz Five and Ritz Center 16.

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

"On Movies" by Inquirer movie critic Steven Rea does not appear this week.

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(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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