Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Way Back

Genre: Coming-of-Age/Comedy
Premise: A lonely teenager spends a life-changing summer at a water park with his family in 1984.
About: Yes, if the first thing that came to mind reading that premise was “Adventureland,” you’re not alone. But I'll get to the similarities later in the review. Staying true to my promise to give you more Black List scripts as we creep closer to 2010’s selections, “The Way Back” is the number 10 ranked script on the 2007 compilation. Faxon and Rash, the writers, also wrote the more recent Black List entry, The Descendents, which will be Alexander Payne’s next movie, and was reviewed over on Matriarchal Script Paradigm.
Writers: Jim Rash and Nat Faxon
Details: 115 pages (2007 draft)

The Way Back is Adventureland by way of a sweeter Kevin Smith mixed with a dash of Dazed and Confused, as well as a healthy dose of Faxon and Rash’s own unique voice. Duncan Ramsey is your atypical 15 year old, a loner unwillingly drafted into that unavoidable war known as your teenage years. His mother, Pam, is a bit of a lush. His stepfather, Trent, is a lot of an asshole, and his fellow teenage sister, Steph, just wants to get through the summer wearing as little clothing as possible. Just like Adventureland, The Way Back takes place in the stylistically misguided decade of the 80s, except instead of a theme park being the central location, the family is staying at…a water park? … What kind of family spends a summer at a water park? Duncan's family. That's who.

Awaiting them once they get there is Betty, a sort of unofficial mayor of this water town. Betty's had a rough year. Her husband recently came out of a closet, her daughter got raped at a food court, and her teenage son has two lazy eyes and plays with Star Wars action figures still in their boxes so they can retain their value. She immediately lays out the word on all the political going-ons of the park, details she seems to be the only one who cares about.

It’s clear from the get-go that Duncan doesn’t want to be here but then again, there aren't many places Duncan does want to be. Actually, cheery 24 hour party of water is wreaking havoc on Duncan's masterful ability to be invisible. But that pales in comparison to his ongoing feud with his jackass of a stepfather, Trent, who puts most of his energy into tearing Duncan down and making him feel like shit. You sense that somewhere, deep down inside, he wishes he would stand up for himself. But Duncan simply doesn't have the confidence. Yet.

Just when things couldn’t get any more depressing, Duncan meets Owen, a park worker with more charm in his pinky than ten Obamas put together. The instantly likable 20-something becomes a sort of half-friend half-parent to Duncan, and jacks him up with enough confidence to change his passive approach to the world. With Owen's encouragement, Duncan begins making friends, talking to girls, and yes, even breakdancing. The question is, will Duncan find what he needs most? The courage to stand up to his step-father.

What works for The Way Back is that everything plays out just a little bit differently than you think it will. Yes there's a love interest, but no one loses their virginity at the end of the summer. Yes this is Duncan's story, but there's a surprising amount of time given to the adults' problems as well. Yes we get the usual suspects here at the park, but each of them has a few quirks or twists that make them unlike any character you've seen before. I can't stress how important that last component is to writing a good screenplay and how often I see it ignored. Readers see the same characters over and over and over again because writers don't want to take the time to push themselves and create something original. Just like the great Dazed and Confused, The Way Back is a familiar story with unique characters told slightly differently.

So am I angry that Adventureland beat this one to the finish line? Hell yeah. The Way Back runs circles around that script in almost every department. But when you're a writer-director with a hit movie, you don't have to wait around for someone to get your movie made. You get your movie made.

Despite how much I enjoyed The Way Back, it still didn't land an impressive rating and I couldn't figure out why at first. There was something missing here. After awhile, I think I determined the problem. And it's an issue you're always going to run into when you write a slice-of-life/coming-of-age film. There's no engine here. Our character isn't trying to achieve anything other than make it through the summer. The reason it's so dangerous to tell a story this way is because without a hero that really wants something, it's hard to keep your story on track. Without having to worry about a specific goal, you can pretty much yank your character around wherever you want. The problem is you yank us along with you, and a lot of times we're sitting there going, "What's going on right now?" That can be frustrating. So what I always say is, if you're going to take a chance using this looser kind of structure, make sure you can do something else really well. Whether it's creating great characters, or writing excellent dialogue. Make sure you have another skill that can make up for the loss of a strong plot. Rash and Faxon happen to be excellent in both the character and dialogue department, which is why we don't notice the story wander as much as we would if they didn't possess those skills.

Anyway, this was an enjoyable little script. And although it probably won't be made because of Adventureland, it's still a great script to study for character and dialogue.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The way Owen is crafted is a great lesson on how to build a likable character. First of all, he’s hilarious. His sharp sense of humor makes him immediately endearing. Second, he’s cool. Everybody wants to be the guy/girl who doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about him. So there's some wish-fullfilment there - the same reason we like superheroes. But his most important attribute is that he genuinely cares about and wants to help our main character. I always tell everyone that the reason Vince Vaughn in Swingers, who is arguably one of the biggest assholes to women in a comedy ever put on film, is so beloved, is that he'll do anything for Mikey. Just having a character care about our main character, is like handing them likability lotion.