"The Way Way Back" is so good. It's the antidote to those comic book, big-tent spectaculars that appear with a summer's predictability. But then, unexpectedly, a small gem of a film appears, a reminder of the kind of filmgoing experience fine writing and superb performances can create when they intersect.
"The WWB" is a coming-of-age film of the type that Hollywood rarely produces. It's insightful, warm-hearted and filled with comedic moments that are delightful and resonate.
The opening shot has Duncan (Liam James), 14, sitting in the rear-most seat of a restored '70s station wagon, facing backward, looking out at where he's been and not where he's going. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), several years divorced, is asleep up front. Her big crush boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), is driving. He calls back to Duncan, asking, on a scale of one to 10, "Where do you fit?" Reluctant to answer, Duncan finally says, six. Trent, with an edge of cruelty and denigration, tells Duncan that in his opinion he's a three and then explains why. The pained look on Duncan's face confirms that he is caught in that adolescent nexus of angst and awkwardness and silently believes that Trent is right.
Along with Trent's older teenage daughter, the four of them are on the way to Trent's Boston shore beach house for a weeklong Fourth of July holiday. Duncan would rather be with his recently remarried father in San Diego than spend one more hour in Trent's company, understanding that for all of the man's outward affability he is, at heart, a mean-spirited jerk. A quality his mother refuses to see, blinded by lust-love and her wish for a relationship at all cost.
So, after arriving at Trent's house, Duncan, finding a girl's pink bike in the garage, takes off, intent on being anywhere other than with the adults.
In his travels he discovers a waterslide park called Water Wizz. And meets its quirky manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes Duncan on a tour and soon befriends him, offering him a go-fer job at the park, which soon proves to be Duncan's salvation.
Gradually, Duncan's sad, slumped-shoulder walk begins to change, as does he. Owen's riffs are priceless, his running commentary about the park and about life soon lift Duncan's shroud of reticence and insecurity, replacing it with confidence and even joy.
The dialogue and set pieces are astonishingly authentic — funny and sad and engaging. And Rockwell's performance as Owen is a thing to behold. He is superb, delivering lines that are sublimely crafted, written by the directors of the film, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also have minor parts in the film, and who won an Oscar for their screenplay, "The Descendants."
Hollywood writers rarely get a coming-of-age film right. Too often the storytelling devolves into crudity and stereotypes, abandoning all effort to tell a complex tale about this most difficult period of change and transition. "The Way, Way Back" gets it just right.
Granted, there's a sizeable and hard-core fan base that has followed the evolution of the Marvel Comic character Wolverine (aka Logan) since his big-screen debut in 2000, and his earlier creation in a 1984.
That fan base, it's assumed, hasn't missed a film adaptation and will be pleased as Hugh Jackman once again portrays this feral, immortal character with punch and panache. He doesn't phone it in. But then, he could infuse the NYC phonebook with tangible verve, so compelling is his on-screen presence. No matter that Logan has adamantium retractable claws and an ability to instantly heal.
"The Wolverine" also moves away from the one-dimensional cartoonish persona and actually gives Wolverine/Logan some depth and complexity. Even vulnerability.
The film opens with Logan trapped in a deep well in Nagasaki, a POW during World War II, just as the atomic bomb is dropped. He saves a soldier, Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanda), from certain death. Decades later, Yashida sends a young woman, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring Logan back to Tokyo to bid a dying and still grateful Yashida farewell.
As it turns out, Yashida has another agenda that plays out with much violence and confrontation, to include one of the best scenes in the film: a chase on top of a speeding bullet train, as Logan fights for his life and finds his claws ideal for clinging to the fast moving train. It's a ride.
Fans will love "The Wolverine." And even the uninitiated may find it to be, in its own way, strangely entertaining.