The Way Way Back--a popsicle of a film that's refreshing amid summer's seemingly endless desert of big-screen duds--is 2013's first bona fide contender to make the Oscar's Best Picture shortlist.
But don't let that discourage you from going.
You needn't worry that The Way Way Back is one of those self-important films which the Motion Picture Academy adores: you know, costume dramas and biopics. Instead, the film is smart, but not sassy; funny, but never obnoxious. Not unlike last summer's Moonrise Kingdom--The Way Way Back is this year's attempt to make that lengthy catapult from the long, hot summer box office toward the short, cold end-of-year list comprised of 2013's best efforts.
Though its setting is contemporary, the film has the feel of a memory play: there's the weathered beach house, the heat-slowed rhythm of late afternoons, a Pac Man machine and a soundtrack featuring REO Speedwagon (righteous!).
And the film's title will be familiar to those of us who, as children, were relegated to the seat in the far reaches of the family station wagon--remember that lone seat in the way, way back? But those of us who spent a chunk of our childhood facing backward while the rest of the clan chatted away with their eyes looking forward, learned the hard way why that extra seat exists: Families usually have way too much baggage.
The Way Way Back's hero, stuck in his family's way, way back, is Duncan (Liam James), a lad with a fishbowl haircut, hands dug deep into his pockets, shoulders slumped forward and eyes ever downward. He suffers as his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) is blinded by the summer sun and middle-aged denial while she engages in an inappropriate relationship with Trent, her total jerk of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). To escape his family's hell, Duncan steals a girl's banana seat bike (complete with embarrassing pink streamers, a bell and a basket), and pedals until he comes upon Water Wizz, a second-rate splash park, featuring concession stands like Sugar Shack and Salty Dawg.
There, Duncan meets an unlikely mentor: Owen (Sam Rockwell), who is more of a stand-up comic than a counselor, especially when he's dealing with fellow counselor Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), his all-too-serious paramour.
Caitlin: "We have a situation in the lagoon."
Owen: "Is it a homicide?"
Owen makes regular pop culture references to bad movies and music from the 1970s, and if anyone should trace Owen's DNA as a character, they need look no further than when he wears a Hawaiian shirt and ascot to a party. In other words, he's the direct descendant of Bill Murray as Tripper in 1979's Meatballs.
Allison Janney joins the party as Betty, a next-door neighbor who, when she's not tipsy, is falling-down-drunk. Plus there's AnnaSophia Robb as the pretty blonde who sees Duncan for the cool but complex kid he really is, and River Alexander as Peter, aka the kid with the lazy eye (I won't spoil it for you, but trust me, he's a hilarious addition).
By the time the end titles scrawled across the screen (all too soon), I desperately wanted a Way Way Back sequel to watch ASAP. Maybe next summer?