REVIEW: The Way Way Back


Maybe I’ve been watching too many blockbusters, but when a movie like The Way Way Back comes along, I get excited. A simple family drama by the writers of The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film has zero pretensions.  It exists only to tell the story of a teenage boy struggling to build some confidence and stand up to his mother’s jerky boyfriend. There are no world-ending consequences here – just interesting, realistic characters and an infectious sense of fun.

In a summer movie season bent on bludgeoning viewers with apocalyptic visuals and generic stories, The Way Way Back is like a refreshing dip in a pool during a heat wave. It also marks another charming collaboration between Faxon and Rash, who are setting themselves up as a filmmaking duo to watch over the next few years – they’ve hit upon a winning blend of dysfunction and good-natured humour. Their film is proof that small-scale stories can be a delightful break from an otherwise big-budget marathon.

The story follows Duncan (Liam James), who’s been dragged out for a summer at the beach house belonging to his mother’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Duncan would much rather be spending time with his father in California, but he’s promised his mother (Toni Collette) that he’d try to make friends with Trent. Unfortunately, Trent is only interested in romancing Duncan’s mother and hanging out with his friends – he has no time for Duncan, and prefers to belittle the kid whenever he gets a chance.

To make matters worse, Duncan is painfully shy, and has a hard time making friends with kids his own age. Just when Duncan begins to feel totally alone, he stumbles across a quirky waterpark on the other side of town, run by the charismatic Owen (Sam Rockwell). Duncan makes an impression on Owen, and he offers Duncan a job on staff. It gives the teenager a place to hang out, away from Trent’s partying at the beach house. Duncan begins to come into his own, but soon finds his new sanctuary threatened by the tensions simmering at home.

In ensemble pieces like this, a lot depends on the cast establishing themselves early on. Steve Carell has you wanting to punch him from the start as the self-absorbed Trent – a notable example of the actor playing against his usually likeable character type. And the film acts as a true breakout performance for Liam James as Duncan. James nails the body language and confused feelings of many a fourteen-year-old boy, and like the writer-directors, James proves he’s another person to watch as his career develops.

The cast member who really defines the movie is Rockwell, who’s well within his comfort zone as Owen, the lovable slacker running the Water Wizz Water Park. Rockwell steals almost every scene he’s in, and paired with a supporting performance by Maya Rudolph, he gets a chance to be more than just the comic relief. Owen becomes a de facto older brother for Duncan, someone willing to listen and give the kid a chance.

Sam Rockwell steals most of his scenes as Owen, Duncan's new friend.

The Way Way Back (a title I’m still meditating on) doesn’t concern itself with “Big Ideas” – just relatable experiences. Concepts like family, friendship, and growing up are dealt with in the script, but not in a heavy-handed way. And even though some of the characters (like an overbearing neighbour played by Alison Janney) are fairly over the top, I’d bet that Duncan’s story will feel familiar to most viewers. At some point, we’ve all been that awkward kid trying to figure things out.

Granted, a coming-of-age tale about an American teenager isn’t particularly new. But Faxon and Rash have so deftly mixed all the essential elements here – sweetness, charm, awkwardness and drama – that you won’t care. Think of this film like your summer vacation – not too different from last year, but relaxing and enjoyable all the same. The Way Way Back gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

What did you think of The Way Way Back? Did it make you feel all warm and fuzzy, or was it just another variation on films you’ve seen before? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my recent reviews here, or check out my reviews of classic movies here.