Monday, July 1, 2013

Early, and most welcome, "Oscar" bait from Nat Faxton/Jim Rash: THE WAY WAY BACK

A coming-of-age-cum-how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation tale, THE WAY WAY BACK sneaks up on you. Moment to moment, it's as real as you could want, with interesting characters and situations, none of which are over-the-top in the manner of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno (two films with which it is being compared). In fact, it's rather ordinary. Yet it's this very ordinariness, served up remarkably well by a skillfully chosen and then beautifully calibrated ensemble cast, that makes it, at first funny and charming, finally important and moving, all without missing a beat or injecting a false moment. At this point in time, here's the movie to beat for Best Picture 2013.

The two men who wrote it -- Nat Faxon, at right, and Jim Rash, below left -- are the same guys who, with Alexander Payne, won the adapted screenwriting Oscar for The Descendants. This time the duo directs, as well, in addition to each man taking on a tasty supporting role in the film (both have acting resumes as long as  my legs). They do a sterling job in all three areas, and if I may say something a tad heretical, this is a bit better-directed film than is Payne's The Descendants -- which, in trying to cram so much into its less-than-two-hour time frame, occasionally seemed alternately under-cooked and over-baked.

Here, however, events are not nearly so momentous. Consequently everything and everyone moves along at a realistic clip, with nothing given a moment more than it deserves. This is how we create reality, movie-wise, at least. The plot of The Way Way Back concerns broken families taking a somewhat communal seaside summer vacation, in the same place yearly where neighbors know (and mostly look forward to seeing) each other during the season. The filmmakers take it for granted, as will most of us, that divorce is common, and so the kids of these families will have to piece together their lives with each parent separately, if at all. So it is with the three sets of families (two of whom have kids) who canoodle over this particular year.

Our underage hero is one, Duncan, played by up-and-comer Liam James, above, whose slightly Neanderthal appearance and behavior, seem just about perfect for that transitional age between boyhood and young manhood. Duncan, with his mom (another fine and properly toned-down performance from Toni Collette, below, left) comes to the summer quarters of mom's significant-other, Trent (a new kind of role for the increasingly versatile Steve Carell, below, right), and his older-than-Duncan daughter named Steph (an appropriately nasty Zoe Levin).

Pushy neighbor Betty (Allison Janney, below and excellent here) lives next door with her beautiful teenage daughter, Susannah (AnnaSophia Robb), and wandering-eyed younger son (a sweet, funny River Alexander).

Nearby reside friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) who own a nice boat, which will later come into play. It only takes a night or two for the rondelay to begin, and this ensemble of first-rate performers does it proud.

Into Duncan's young life comes a life-changer named Owen, (Sam Rockwell, in another great performance that, this time, should lead to a nomination), who owns the local amusement/water park, and so we get another whole cast of characters from this venue (including the writer/directors, as well as Maya Rudolf, below, giving a quiet, gentle and lovely performance). All of this meshes so naturally and interestingly that TrustMovies, an inveterate clock-watcher, didn't once check the time during the entire film.

A problem with so many coming-of-age movies is that they jack-up the content with unnecessary melodrama. Not here. The beauty of The Way Way Back is how absolutely in keeping with the moment is each performance, each event, each bit of dialog. The situation might seem do-or-die to the protagonist, but audiences tend to know that it's really not, so any untoward melodramatics simply alienate us. We understand that all this is but one more step along the way in the game of growing up -- a game, by the way, that has rarely been depicted better than here.

In its final moments, which beautifully echo the manner in which the film began, a small action is taken. It surprises us, then overwhelms us, making the movie perhaps the most genuinely-earned, feel-good experience of the year.

The Way Way Back -- from Fox Searchlight and running 103 minutes -- opens this Friday, July 5, here in NYC at the AMC Empire 25, AMC Loews Lincoln Square, and the Regal Union Square Stadium 14; in Los Angeles, look for it at the AMC Century City 15, The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood. It will simultaneously open this week in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington DC, and in the weeks to come will continue a nationwide rollout.

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