Genre: Comedy, Drama
Directed by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb
The themes may be familiar and the title a mess, but there’s still much to enjoy in this summer coming-of-age comedy. Written and directed by the Oscar winning scribes of The Descendants, The Way, Way Back shows how a fine blend of heart-warming comedy & relatable poignancy can always be emotionally involving when the cast is so talented; even if the story doesn’t scream originality.
The Way, Way Back is certainly a film that takes its time. We first meet Duncan being told by his mother’s new boyfriend Trent how lame he is due to his perpetual shyness, which leads to a constant lack of charisma. Duncan, his mother, Trent & his daughter are all off to spend the summer at Trent’s beach house. Duncan wants to go and spend the summer with his father while his mother, Pam, wants to take the opportunity for him to become closer with Trent & his daughter Steph, which will hopefully bring them all closer together as a family unit. It’s a jarring 20 minutes that persistently feels overly familiar: the boy wanting to be with the other parent, the mother desperately trying to do what’s best for her family & the mother’s bullying boyfriend who may or may not be having an affair.
Mercifully, everything turns around once Duncan starts going to Water Wizz, a local water park run by the confident & constantly energetic Owen. It’s here that The Way, Way Back finds its feet. In a nice break from tradition, this isn’t a film about a guy trying to get the girl, but about the guy trying to escape the adolescent awkwardness that continually holds him back. There is a girl of course, Susanna, who may be Duncan’s first love, but she isn’t the focus here. Through Owen, Duncan has an opportunity to build his confidence so he has the ability to talk to Susanna and even stand up for himself against Trent.
We’ve all had a time when our shyness has got the better of us and that’s what makes Duncan so relatable. Liam James, whose gaunt expression alone shows his insecurity, convincingly allows Duncan to develop over time meaning his is a story we can invest in. As with The Descendants, Faxon & Rash focus on the ensemble rather than the individual, with every character having a significant story to tell. Whether it’s Duncan’s mother Pam – the brilliant Toni Collette – who doggedly tries to keep her feelings hidden and her family intact. Or Maya Rudolph’s park worker Caitlyn, whose life has come to an unexpected halt that she’s worried she’ll never get out of.
No one can match the infectiousness of Sam Rockwell’s Owen though and he lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. The brilliance of Owen is that he’s more than just a device for Duncan’s development; like the rest of the characters, Owen takes a journey that allows him to see that as well as having fun, life is about taking responsibility when the situation calls for it.
It may not boast a particularly original story, but The Way, Way Back is a film about characters, all of whom, whether you like them or not, are spellbinding to watch. As those lovely, long summer days draw to a close, this is the perfect movie to say goodbye to them with.