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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Thursday, July 31, 2014 - Edition No 908 

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WAY, WAY BACK, THE

SYNOPSIS:
The introverted 14-year-old Duncan's (Liam James) summer holiday with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is tense - until he finds an unexpected friend in gregarious Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the Water Wizz attraction.

Review by Louise Keller:
Dysfunctional families and flailing relationships are the focus of this coming of age gem in which everything unravels during the summer holidays. First time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written an observant screenplay that concentrates on the nuances, discomforts, awkward pauses and disconnects experienced by the 14 year old protagonist Duncan (Liam James), isolated in his own world. Like The Descendants, which Faxon and Rash also wrote, the film's pleasures lie in its characterizations coupled with the actions and reactions of its characters. It's real and engaging, with humour and sadness seasoning the action like salt and pepper to a stew of assorted ingredients.

The unforgettable opening scene shows Trent (Steve Carell) locking eyes with Duncan in the rear vision mirror, asking him what number out of 10 he rates himself. Symbolically, Duncan is sitting in the rear of the Buick station wagon facing the world from a different direction to Trent, who is in the driver's seat en route to their beach destination. For all his insistence that he and his mother Pam (Toni Collette) are now a family, the way Trent tramples on Duncan's self esteem by telling him he is a '3' in response to Duncan's suggested '6' is indicative of the power play that is afoot.

From the get-go, Duncan is an outsider with supporting reactions from everyone around him. Like Trent's teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), Betty (Allison Janney), the outrageous, divorced neighbour is quick to pigeon-hole him as a nerd. Janney has a couple of wonderful scenes; she is the loud neighbour with verbal diarrhoea who spits out suggestive comments. AnnaSophia Robb is a stand out as Betty's pretty daughter Susanna, the only bright spark on Duncan's horizon.

But it is Sam Rockwell's irresistible wild-card Owen, who runs the local water park with whom Duncan really connects and who steals the film. Rockwell is brash, volatile and funny, juggling the dramas at the water park with his own relationship dramas with Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph, excellent). Where Trent makes Duncan feel foolish, Owen makes him feel tall and the casual job he is given provides a foundation on which he builds self esteem. James delivers a fine, sensitive performance, making the transition from young boy to a young man convincingly.

In the other critical roles, Carell is outstanding as a character we are not used to seeing him play - unlikeable - while Collette effectively embodies the mother trying to do everything right and who is temporarily blinded by her new relationship. Watch out too for Faxon and Rash who play water park employees and who have a couple of good scenes.

There may not be anything new about the life lessons dished up here, but they are served with great finesse, are appetizing and easy to enjoy.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's an endurance test at first; will the audience put up with such unappealing adults long enough to let the film engage them with its story of a 14 year old boy who is brought out of his shell by a zany but sincere character. But of course, that's the point: Duncan (Liam James) is surrounded by loud people being obnoxious as they begin their summer holiday, proximity and holiday mood bringing out the worst in friends and lovers. To that extent, the screenplay is unoriginal and even perhaps overstated; but it is rescued not only by outstanding performances but the observations that drive the characters.

Sam Rockwell is the unqualified star as Owen, the laid back and comedic character who uses humour to unlock or unhinge anyone within range. The edgy and funny characterisation is never larger than life, but it fills the screen with buoyant humanity and verve. Beneath the humour is a beating heart, which Duncan senses and comes to cherish as a driver for his blossoming persona. Owen does for Duncan what good parents should do, but the father has left the family and mother Pam (Toni Collette) is focusing on the boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Collette is remarkably good in a challenging role which twists and turns her, buffeted by the emotional storms around her.

Steve Carell gives his all to this role of a shallow and brittle character, totally devoid of humour. It's quite a performance. By complete contrast, holiday neighbour Betty (Allison Janney) is a high-fiving kinda gal who starts drinking at the beginning of the summer and just wants to have fun, with a great, bounding joy in life.

Liam Duncan calibrates his performance from introvert to confident with subtle steps, endearing himself to us once he begins to open up. AnnaSophia Robb is memorable as Betty's daughter, who makes a connection with the quiet Duncan and tries to draw him out.

Maya Rudolph is grounded as Caitlyn, Owen's half-hearted romantic interest and professional colleague at the Water Wizz theme park, equally exasperated by and enamoured of him.

Writer directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who did a better writing job with The Descendants) have cast themselves in support roles as water park employees and contribute some humorous moments, and the film ends the only way it can. If only the soundtrack was less trite and less irritating ...



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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

WAY, WAY BACK, THE (M)
(US, 2013)

CAST: Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Amanda Peet, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry

PRODUCER: Tom Rice, Kevin J. Walsh

DIRECTOR: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

SCRIPT: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

CINEMATOGRAPHER: John Bailey

EDITOR: Tatiana S. Riegel

MUSIC: Rob Simonsen

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mark Ricker

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 1, 2013







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