Shy 14-year-old Duncan goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and her boyfriend's daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park.
High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
Duncan (Liam James) is not a popular kid and it doesn't look like the summer is going to offer anything better for him. His mother's boyfriend has invited them to his beach house where Duncan is expected to improve his personality and physical appearance, and meet girls. But his would-be step-sister doesn't want anything to do with him and his shy demeanor makes it difficult for him to meet anybody new. When Duncan wanders into the Water Wizz, the local water park, he meets adult employees who are just having fun. Owen (Sam Rockwell) lets Duncan work with him and their new-found bond will help each other mature and find their place in life. Which for Duncan means standing up to his would-be step-father, having a conversation with the girl next door and being more comfortable with who he is. Written by
A thoughtful, very funny teen flick that adults enjoy even more.
The Way Way Back is marketed as a thoughtful, funny teen flick but, though it is thoughtful, funny and co-stars a couple of teens, the younger audience members shuffled and whispered as if bored, while the belly laughs and satisfied smiles came almost entirely from the 'more mature' audience members. It's not that this is an adult film but so many references require a certain level of life experience or simply that the audience was 'there' at a particular time. Like the blank-faced children queuing for the water chute during the superb Holding out For a Hero scene, it makes little sense for those who never sang along to Bonnie Tyler but tickles the funny bones of almost everyone over the age of 35.
The Way Way Back is a gentle coming of age comedy about the world Duncan (Liam James) has been thrust into. His divorced mum, Pam (Toni Collette), has shacked up with Trent (Steve Carell), forcing Duncan to deal with the absence of his father, the domineering, judgmental disdain of Trent and the withering stares of Trent's bitchy daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Dragged off to Trent's summer vacation home, Duncan endures humiliation and misery until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manger of the Water Wizz water park, who approaches life in his own manner and sees in Duncan what he cannot find in himself. And then there's the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and her mum, Betty (Allison Janney)
It takes a while for The Way Way Back to really kick in. I knew I wanted to enjoy it, and nothing really prevented that from happening, but it felt half a beat off the pace. Then, about twenty minutes in, something sparked and the investment for the first quarter became worthwhile. Just as Duncan evolves into someone a little less awkward, a little more confident than the alien he feels himself to be in his world, so The Way Way Back develops into a heartwarming tale of angst, the reality of life and second chances. And it steps beyond 'quietly amusing' into 'very funny'.
The principal reasons The Way Way Back works are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the partnership that won an Oscar for writing The Descendants and have earned themselves loyal fan bases individually as actors, Rash particularly as Dean Pelton in Community. While The Way Way Back doesn't quite have the edge of The Descendants, it is still a tender, thoughtful visitor that carries a hidden knife to jab into your ribs when required. For anyone who couldn't wait to leave home and adolescence far behind and found exciting possibilities in their summer jobs, this is a film with enough references to make you smile and belly laugh in solidarity and complete understanding.
At the centre of The Way Way Back is James' Duncan. It's not a star-making performance that tugs at us like, say, Paul Dano's Dwayne in the supreme Little Miss Sunshine (which also starred Carell and Collette) but his character development is steady rather than breathtaking and we buy into him. He's odd but we like him because of that. This is no 'ugly duckling turning beautiful' hogwash but a considered performance from an actor who has inhabited his on-screen persona completely.
Collette is on fairly safe territory here as the mixed-up mum who is holding it together and hoping for the best but papering over the cracks with tissue. As her boyfriend, however, Carell is on superb form. There are many expletives and mild obscenities one could use to describe Trent but Carell avoids the pitfalls of making him purely evil. Trent isn't so much cruel as quietly unpleasant. Perhaps he even believes he is genuinely helping when he asks Duncan, "On a scale of one to ten, what do you think you are?" before crushing the teenager with his own damning, contrary assessment of him. This is a Carell we are rarely allowed to see but I sincerely hope he extends his range and gives us the dark side more often.
Rockwell is at his best here. Forget the overcooked oddball of Seven Psychopaths, he is on sincere form as the man who has never quite left his own youth and understands what really matters more than any of the other adults around Duncan. Rockwell has proved to be a versatile actor (compare his turns in Welcome to Collinwood, The Green Mile and Matchstick Men for a start) who adds a quirky tangent to most films. His Owen is not simply played for laughs but with honesty and sincerity.
On the periphery are some solid and amusing supporting performances from the likes of Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet as the neighbours, Kip and Joan, and Janney as the lush next door, but scenes are stolen frequently by Rash as the camp, dour Lewis, an kiosk attendant with no customers and no escape. Brilliant! The Way Way Back is far from perfect but, after the initial lacklustre, I enjoyed it immensely and laughed aloud. If you heeded my advice and enjoyed last year's Safety Not Guaranteed, add this to your viewing list. It's not quite a gem but it's worth taking a chance on a movie that flies because of some very, very funny delivery of superbly written dialogue.
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