Beautiful Side Characters in The Way Way Back

I’m mildly embarrassed to confess how few films I’ve seen this year. I’ve still got over half a dozen to see before I feel comfortable talking about “bests” of 2013. Unfortunately, I may not get to everything I want to – and yet there’s plenty from this year I want to discuss and digest. So don’t think of the upcoming six “2013 Favorites” posts as indicative of the best this year; rather, these are just things in films I’ve seen that I really enjoyed and wanted to highlight, with hopes that you enjoyed them, too.

I rarely think of Duncan when remembering The Way Way Back. That’s nothing against fresh-faced actor Liam James, a newcomer who anchors the film well. I don’t think of his mother, played by a wonderful Toni Colette, or his would-be stepfather, a nasty Steve Carell, either. That’s probably because the central familial conflict of the film is probably the least interesting or innovative thing about it.

Everything happening on the edges, however, is just spectacular, making TWWB one of the most enjoyable films of the year in spite of its overdone central plot. That’s because Oscar-winning writer/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon are magnificent world-builders, filling the nearly timeless summer destination Duncan and co. visit with truly genuine, colorful characters.

Take Sam Rockwell, known best for his one-man wonder film Moon. He’s playing Owen, a water park owner and mentor for Duncan. His is a character who could too easily veer into cliché, either as a father figure or as part of an inappropriate relationship. But Rockwell makes Owen so unique and individual – no other movie has an Owen, and that is almost entirely to his credit.

Owen exists with equal parts snark and heart. He’s a punch line machine who you can feel living and breathing, be it through his support of Owen or in his relationship with Maya Rudolph’s warm manager character. It’s an incomparable performance, and one of the most under-rewarded of the year. I’d love to watch three more movies about Owen at different parts of his life – but only with Rockwell in the role.

The other actor who fleshes her character out far more than one might expect is Allison Janney as next door neighbor Betty, a divorcee who loves to talk as much as she loves to drink. She’s also a mother to a moody teen daughter and a son with a lazy eye. She’s hilarious, but her most obvious gags (particularly about her son’s lazy eye) are some of the least comedic ally rewarding. Instead, she uses these as moments to build Betty as a woman that, yes, has her issues, but also loves her children more than anything. The shot above of Betty and her daughter, played by Annasophia Robb, looking on as Duncan’s family departs is one of my favorites in the film, hinting at a whole story between them that’s been going on while we’ve been watching Duncan.

That’s not to say Janney isn’t funny. She’s raucously funny, the kind of hilarious that has you bug-eyed. How she manages to make “My niece was raped in October … Even food courts aren’t safe these days” the funniest line in the film is beyond me. She’s a comic wonder, and a gift to movies like this (see also: Juno).

Is it fair to give Rockwell and Janney more credit for knocking their smaller roles out of the park when the relatively serious central characters had less interesting material? Maybe. But I want to see so much more of Owen and Betty. They’re just so lived in – it’s easy to be jealous that we didn’t get to spend more time with them.

Follow Kevin O’Keeffe on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.


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