If you drive deep into Eastern North Carolina, there is a small town in Bladen County named White Lake. Less than 1,000 people make it their permanent residence, but during the summer the campgrounds around the lake swell with folks who own little trailers that become their unofficial summer residences. Once the sun sets, you are liable to find more golf carts on the roads than cars, as people drive house to house looking the next keg party or pig pickin’.
These images are what first came to mind upon viewing Academy Award winning screenwriters (The Descendants) and first time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back. Set during a summer seemingly made to be 14-year-old Duncan’s personal hell, he finds himself trapped on vacation in a spot much like what I described above with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his teenage daughter. The evenings are packed with neighborhood parties and cookouts, and the days spent surrounded by teenagers he could not be less like. Every family outing becomes a journey into embarrassment for Duncan until he meets the manager of a run-down water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes the kid under his wing and somehow manages to coax him out of his introverted shell.
Many have lauded the comedy-drama since its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, but I was nowhere near prepared for what I found when I walked into the screening a couple of weeks ago. Expecting something along the feel-good lines of a Little Miss Sunshine, perhaps even a slightly less hipster Juno, what I found instead was a heartwarming coming of age tale that invites us into a boy’s life for a short while, but long enough to watch as he develops the coping skills to make it as an adult. Anchored by a fine performance by Liam James, the young Duncan must deal with a potential stepfather who views him as an opponent for his mother’s love and a shy nature that allows girls his age to taunt him with rumors of incest. Even his only mode of escape is a pink bike that has seen better days.
Perhaps the finest work by actors in TWWB would be the duo of Collette and Allison Janney, here playing a mom incapable of making the right decision. The two actresses play their roles from exact opposites of the spectrum, with Collette all quiet and loving to those around her, and Janney searching for the inch of scenery that she has yet to chew. The two weirdly counteract each other and bring the best out of the other in each scene they appear in together.
Faxon and Rash have made quite the auspicious debut behind the camera here, as they battle the remnants of the summer shoot-em-up season for a spot near the top of the box office charts this weekend. Regardless of where the film ends up on Sunday night, I already know there is a place waiting for it on my year-end Best of 2013 list.