When you're stuck at the Sundance Film Festival in the mountains of Park City, UT, for seven straight days watching three, four or even five movies in a row on any given day – movies that have a reputation for being quite heavy, dark or depressing – the prospect of seeing a crowd-pleasing comedy can seem like a breath of fresh air. Mind you, that's a very thin breath of fresh air, since Park City is 7,000 feet above sea level, but it's still fresh enough to warm the heart of even the most sleep-deprived Sundance warrior.
Such was the case way, way back in January with "The Way, Way Back," a charming, deep and delightful coming-of-age comedy co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – two of the Oscar-winning screenwriters behind 2011's "The Descendants" (they co-wrote that screenplay with its director, Alexander Payne). Sure, it's formulaic and predictable, but the film has so many other things going for it that it's hard to resist: a water park setting that's fitting for a summertime release, polished production values, a feel-good story and dynamic performances from a dream ensemble cast.
Leading the way is Liam James as Duncan, an awkward 14-year-old who finds himself stuck with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), at his summer vacation getaway in Massachusetts. But just when it seemed as if Duncan couldn't feel any more self-conscious about his insecurities, he finds a friend and mentor in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the free-spirited manager of the local water park. It's that friendship that helps Duncan learn to embrace his individuality and find his place in the world, making this a summer vacation he will never forget.
James gives a breakthrough performance, and he holds his own alongside his co-stars, including Toni Collette as his mother, who doesn't realize that she deserves better than what she's got, and Steve Carell, who's convincing to a shocking effect as her jerk of a boyfriend. Allison Janney is a hoot as their loopy neighbor, much to the chagrin of her disapproving daughter, played by AnnaSophia Robb. But in what amounts to a tribute to Bill Murray's similar turn as a camp manager in 1979's "Meatballs," Sam Rockwell steals the show as the water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing.
But Faxon and Rash are the real revelations here, pulling triple-duty to co-direct, co-write and co-star (as water park staffers) in a smart and endearing crowd-pleaser that maintains its warmth from start to finish. No wonder Fox Searchlight – the label behind another Sundance gem, 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine" (which also co-starred Carell and Collette) – paid a hefty sum (almost $10 million) to snag distribution rights. Turns out it was money well-spent, which is why I can't wait to go way, way back to Sundance next January, which is where the next breath of fresh air hopefully awaits.
Verdict: SEE IT!
-- Scott Mantz
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