How A Water Slide Comedy Won Sundance

Defying all expectations, The Way, Way Back becomes the festival’s first mega-sale in years.

Liam James and Sam Rockwell in The Way, Way Back. Courtesy of Sundance

Two days ago I wrote that the years when a little comedy could sweep into the festival and sell for $10 million, as Hamlet 2 did in 2008, were long gone, thanks in no small part to a glutted market and the collapse of DVD revenues. I quoted an industry insider (who could have been one of a dozen who told me the same thing) saying that the highest-selling film at the festival today would be hard-pressed to walk away with a third of that price.

Well, what a difference a screening makes. Particularly when it is the sort of standing-ovation premiere enjoyed Monday by The Way, Way Back, a comedy written and directed by Descendants scribes (and sitcom stars) Nat Faxon and Jim Rash about an awkward teenager finding solace from his dysfunctional family one summer at a water park. The crowds were still cheering when negotiations to buy the film began in the lobby. When it was over this morning, indie film powerhouse Fox Searchlight shelled out what was reported to be just over $9 million for the film.

So how did Way, Way Back defy the pundits and do it? To start with, in a festival that can lean heavily on the edgy, dark, hectoring, transgressive, and experimental, Way, Way is none of those things. In fact, apart from its lowish budget and outside-of-the-studio origins, the film feels very much like a rambunctious mainstream comedy, taking its cues from late-’70s coming-of-age summer comedies like Caddyshack and Meatballs but infused with a heavy contemporary dose of of warmheartedness — reminiscent of another Sundance (and not-all-that-indie) sensation, Little Miss Sunshine. For audiences at the screening Monday who had sat through days of moody, meandering tone pieces, the relief at seeing a straightforward, feel-good film was palpable.

Second, Way Way Back is propelled by some of the best comic performances to hit the screen in ages from the likes of Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, Steve Carrell, and the two directors themselves. In particular, however, two performances push the film over the top: The always great Allison Janney is hilarious as the boozy divorcée next door, and Sam Rockwell gives a game-changing comedy performance — rivaling the early roles of Chevy Chase and Bill Murray — as the devil-may-care water-park owner.

The film is far from perfect. The family relationship drifts in and out, with big holes left unanswered. The lead’s flowering out of his nerd shell is a bit too clean and easy. But when you’re laughing, who cares about plot issues?

Jim Rash and Nat Faxon on Main Street, Park City. Richard Rushfield

The great success goes to show that sometimes the best stories from Sundance aren’t always the ones up on the screen. On Sunday, the day before their screening, I chatted with Rash and Faxon, who were strolling down Main Street, blissfully ignored by the fans and autograph hunters chasing the stars emerging from the swag suites. The pair were charmingingly antsy about their screening to come, giving no sign that they suspected big things were in store. “It’s our first time here, for both of us,” Faxon told me. “So it’s another very exciting thing that’s happened to us. It’s fun to be here, and it’s fun to have a reason to be here other than just to see movies. It’s exciting.”

Before that point, they told me, they had only shown the film to a room of 30 or 40 people, family and friends only, and were nervous about how it would play before a big crowd. Rash said, “Our cast hasn’t even seen it and they will be here. So you’re just personally nervous. You want to do right by them.”

Clearly, they didn’t need to worry.

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