Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, Academy Award winners in collaboration with Alexander Payne on The Descendants, have co-written and directed this tender, summer set coming-of-age tale. Teasing an audience to reflect on their own awkward teenage years, The Way Way Back blends uplifting optimism with an accurate portrayal of youthful melancholy, intelligently capturing the confusing adolescent emotions we can all relate to. This may be facing unease with the introduction of a stranger to the family, feeling rejected by someone you thought cared for you and dealing with a lack of self-esteem.
The screenplay’s plentiful warmth and charm and the terrific ensemble – with Sam Rockwell, especially, in outstanding form – help to easily surmount any predictable outcomes one may have been expecting, despite a couple of scenes too conveniently written to register plausibly.
Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a socially awkward boy saddened by his parents recent divorce, has been dragged along to a small seaside town for the summer. His mother Pam (Toni Collette) has an imposing new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), who has his own wild child daughter (Zo Levin) and whose summerhouse will serve as their lodging. Duncan is consistently at odds with Trent, struggles to fit in with the other kids, and finds himself removed from his mother, who spends most of her time with Trent and his friends (amongst them Allison Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corrdry). Though befriending Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) the girl staying next door, Duncan’s life begins to change when he meets Owen (Rockwell), the manager of a water park called Water Wizz. Soon enough he begins to come out of his shell when he is hired as an employee.
This is a film driven by the different relationships addressed. There is an achingly sad evaporation of a bond between Duncan and his mother. It gets to the point where Duncan takes lengths to avoid her, when she clearly tries her best to show him attention. Trent knowingly provokes Duncan’s insecurities, putting in his head the idea that he is a loser. He suggests that no girl would ever like him unless he improves himself and even claims that his own father doesn’t want him around.
When Duncan meets Owen, a laid-back, carefree guy that enjoys making people happy, he is treated just as a regular kid. Perhaps Owen is a little insecure himself, or perhaps saw a younger version of himself in Duncan. He understands that he needs to experience a few new things, and be given a little nudge out of his comfort zone. Rather than belittle him further, Owen gives Duncan responsibility, which serves as a reprieve from the grimmer realities at home. At the same time, Owen is a man-child stuck in a stage of arrested development and Duncan teaches him a thing or two about responsibility.
While the intelligent scripting ensures that we are fully immersed in these layered characters, they are brought to life by the entire ensemble. While Collette, as a mother torn between her son and her new partner, and Carrell, against-type as a bully who preys on Duncan to give himself a sense of importance and power, are uniformly fantastic, James and Rockwell are the two who especially impressed. The smaller roles assigned to Robb, Janney, Maya Rudolph and Rash himself – a hilarious cameo as a bored Water Wizz employee who repeatedly threatens to quit – are effective enough to leave an impression. The casting agents deserve a pat on the back here.
I also felt that the film was very well timed. There are a series of outings – group dinners and a boat trip – which establish Duncan’s anxiety and address his discomfort, and set the platform for his introduction to the energy of the park camaraderie. It conveys the way that Duncan is constantly the brunt of a cruel joke, or the victim of unwarranted discipline, as opposed to the encouragement offered him by the his oddball colleagues. While these worlds may be deemed to be too opposing, we begin to see each one bleed into the other. Duncan begins to stand up for himself and connects with Susanna like he couldn’t before. Another refreshing element of this film was the absence of a clear-cut romance. Duncan has a romantic experience, but the two connect through shared pain, and Duncan finds that he can pull out some surprises.
The Way Way Back is an utterly delightful coming-of-age tale with themes of familial unraveling and adolescent social dislocation that evokes amused guffaws and a fulfilled heart in equal measure. But, lets be honest, Sam Rockwell is worth the admission alone. Seeing this film at fourteen probably would have changed my life, but it still left me a happy man.
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Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22