By Jennie Jarvis
This evening, I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the film The Way, Way Back, which will open in theaters everywhere on July 5th. If you follow film news at all, then you probably know that this film was the biggest acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival and it was written and directed by Academy Award winning screenwriting due Jim Rash (yes, the Dean on Community) and Nat Faxon. You might also know that this film features a dream cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry and many more amazingly talented actors whose names you might not know but who will recognize at once.
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Fortunately for audiences everywhere, the film is good enough to deserve its glowing hype, and I truly feel fortunate to have seen it.
The Way, Way Back tells the story of Duncan, an awkward youth that journeys to a beach house with his mother, his mother’s boyfriend and his daughter to spend the summer. I could rave about many things in the film, but for this blog, I really want to commend the writers for their amazing screenplay. This was a subtle and often hilarious film that wasn’t afraid to trust the top-notch actors that were cast to do their jobs. These writers knew the power that a simple look or the slump of a shoulder could bring, and they didn’t feel the need to overwrite the action in order to tell their compelling and very human story.
Over the years, I’ve come across so many screenplays that proved that some writers are too terrified to trust actors to do their jobs. They feel like they have to give extra information through dialogue in order to convey their underlying message.
In The Way, Way Back, however, the writers knew that good actors have the ability to build a scene without saying a word. While many writers would feel some kind of impulsive need to front load their script with backstory and long stretches of dialogue, protagonist Duncan (Liam James) hardly says a word for at least the first 20-30 minutes of the film. When he does try to talk, he can barely string two words together. It is his lack of dialogue that helps to define who he is, and as his confidence grows, the character receives more and more dialogue in the screenplay. In other words, the writing reflects the character.
Later in the film, we see some other brilliant yet silent moments. With one look, Pam (Toni Collette) conveys that she not only realizes that her relationship may not work out but that her son knows it too. By wearing a simple headband, we see how threatened Joan (Amanda Peet) feels about Trent’s new girlfriend. Owen (Sam Rockwell) steps forward when introduced to Trent in such a way that we see how protective he has become of Duncan. These are all subtle yet forceful gestures that were included in the screenplay where a lesser writer would have felt compelled to include verbose dialogue.
But this screenplay doesn’t only shine when the cast is saying nothing. The film also succeeds when characters talk about something other than the main issue that they face. Because the writers recognize the power of subtext, they trust the actors’ performances to convey the deeper issues. One of my favorite examples of this comes in a scene where Duncan, his mother, her boyfriend Trent and his daughter all sit around the table to play Candyland. Duncan pulls a card and moves his token to the appropriate blue square. His mother encourages him to take a shortcut on the board in order to help him win the game. Trent, however, stops this from happening. He pulls out the rule book and insists that the game be played by the rules. While Duncan’s mother is adamant about the fact that they don’t have to play by the rules and that they can make exceptions in order to keep the game fun, Trent is strict and headstrong. The argument grows until it climaxes with Duncan’s mother yelling “Fucking Candyland” and leaving the room. Duncan, meanwhile, never tried to take the shortcut. He didn’t care. The power struggle exists only between his mother and Trent. In that one scene, we get a subtle and yet powerful glimpse of how and why the adult relationship is crumbling. It’s marvelous writing, brilliantly acted by Steve Carell and Toni Collette.
Steve Carell’s character Trent is probably the best-written character of the bunch. For the most part, if you just look at the words that he says, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. However, when you pair it with HOW he delivers the line, he becomes one of the biggest jerks in film history. For example, the opening scene of the film, which is partially shown in the trailer, features Trent trying to convince Duncan to use the summer to meet new friends and become more sociable. This sounds like something a good guy would do, right? But HOW he says the line makes us hate him immediately. Throughout the film, he asks for trust, but he never gives Duncan a reason to trust him. Duncan himself criticizes Trent to his mom, saying that Trent says that he wants to be a family, but he doesn’t do anything to support what he says. Trent’s character becomes even less likable when contrasted to Sam Rockwell’s Owen. Owen says a lot of stupid and ridiculous things, but what he does makes him the good guy. He admits when he is wrong, and he takes action to prove his worth to others. It’s complicated and realistic writing that makes Trent and all of the other characters so believable.
That’s not to say that the dynamic writers aren’t afraid to use more direct dialogue. If you watch the trailer (below), you’ll hear some great zingers. Everything that alcoholic neighbor Betty (Allison Janey) says should probably be put on t-shirts or turned into memes. But what makes these lines so powerful is not that they are slick and polished one-liners. It’s that they are supported by well-developed characters, portrayed by amazing actors who are, in turn, given a screenplay that allows them to do what they do best – act.
In the upcoming summer season, where super heroes and explosions are going to be opening each weekend, I’m genuinely afraid that this subtle yet powerful character based comedy will be overlooked at the box office. If you are reading this blog, then you are most likely a writer. As a fellow writer, I implore you to head to your local movie theater this summer, but instead of buying a ticket to Despicable Me 2 or The Lone Ranger, please support this gorgeous film created by writers who know how to tell a story by trusting their talented cast.