If Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s directorial debut “The Way, Way Back” had a theme song, it would be Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero.” Why a tune from the ‘80s film “Footloose?” A couple of reasons.
First, when facing a ridiculous dilemma in the movie, the character Owen (Sam Rockwell) looks out into a crowd, and jokingly asks for assistance by quoting it. The amusing kicker is that no one gets the reference, even after he tries to mention the recent “Footloose” remake. The gag and the impending laughs from its failure are indicative of this picture’s delightful retro style.
Second, and more importantly, the song represents a cry for help from Duncan (Liam James), our protagonist in this coming-of-age comedy. He needs a hero to save him from his miserable existence, and luckily, Rockwell’s Owen answers the call. He may not be strong, fast, or fresh from the fight like Tyler’s song requests, however Owen has everything needed to save the day.
Duncan is about to have a terrible summer: the awkward 14-year-old is forced on a trip with his mom (Toni Collette), her bully boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s bitchy daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). All of them are staying at Trent’s beach house where Duncan’s nightmare only gets worse. The adults there, which include Trent’s pals Betty (Allison Janney), Kip (Rob Corddry), and Pam (Amanda Peet), party like they’re on spring break, while Steph continually ditches him.
Everything changes though after he meets Rockwell’s Owen, the wise-cracking slacker who’s manager at Water Wizz, the local waterpark. Not only does Owen give Duncan a job and a means to escape his awful vacation, he provides the young man with much-needed mentorship. Owen teaches Duncan a crash course in cool, getting him to relax, while helping him to master the fine art of sarcasm. Duncan finds himself, makes tons of new friends, chases a girl (AnnaSophia Robb), and realizes that he can stand up to Trent’s bullying.
At first, “The Way, Way Back” is tough to watch. In the opening scene especially, you want to punch Trent in the nose. Previously I said Burt Wonderstone was the most unlikable we’ve ever seen Carell to-date, but Trent easily beats him for the title. Also, given how emotionally withdrawn Duncan is in the beginning, it’s hard to relate to him. However, the introduction of Janney and Rockwell’s characters, infuse the necessary energy to propel the comedy forward until you start to understand Duncan.
Speaking of Betty and Owen, their intense personalities continually crack you up. Betty is a sassy older woman who has a drink glued to her hand, always says what’s on her mind, and hits on everyone. Janney gives the perfect over-the-top performance required for the character, so she’s a hoot. Owen, who is the film’s heart and soul, is twice as hilarious and lovable. Although Rockwell has acknowledged in interviews, that he lifted parts of his character from Bill Murray in "Meatballs," he shows a genuinely sensitive side that we rarely see from Murray. Writer/directors Faxon and Rash get in on the fun too by throwing themselves into silly supporting roles with flavor. Rash dons ridiculous Jeffrey Dahmer-style glasses and a creepy handlebar mustache to portray the perpetually morose Lewis, while Faxon jumps in as Owen’s partner in crime Roddy.
“The Way, Way Back” may take place in the present day, but it has the playful spirit and unbridled optimism of a movie from 20 - 30 years ago. There’s rude humor, that never gets raunchy, and a comedic innocence similar to that of ‘80s films from this genre. Faxon and Rash craft an absorbing tale that causes you forget about the outside world for 103 minutes. Their sun-soaked coming-of-age comedy will make you long for the carefree days of summer, as well as the smells of sand, sunscreen, and even waterpark chlorine.
Thank you Mr. Faxon and Mr. Rash, for making my favorite film of 2013 so far.
My Grade: A+...as in Absolutely Perfect! A New Classic!
Look out for “The Way, Way Back” in theaters this July. IFFBoston continues through Tuesday April 30, 2013. For more information, visit www.iffboston.org.