The Way, Way Back
Release Date: July 5, 2013 (limited)
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Stars: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney
MPAA Rating: PG-13
After sitting through a series of big budget summer blockbusters, there was something refreshing about watching The Way, Way Back, a quieter and more thoughtful film telling the simple story of a 14-year-old boy looking for an escape from his mother’s overbearing boyfriend, who he’s stuck cohabitating with for the summer.
Our protagonist in the film is Duncan (Liam James), a moody, reserved teenager who is coping with his parents divorce. Further complicating Duncan’s life is the fact that he’s stuck spending the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), his mother’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s pretentious, older teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) in Trent’s beach house.
The film opens with Duncan, Pam, Trent and Steph all in Trent’s car on the way to there. While Pam and Steph sleep, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to 10. Duncan gives himself a six, while Trent fires back, “I give you a three.” Trent’s challenge to Duncan is for him to be more assertive and confident by “putting [himself] out there” this summer. Trent, of course, fails to see the irony in giving a pep talk that starts with telling a shy 14-year-old that you think he’s a three out of 10.
Trent is part of a close-knit beach community that includes Kip (Rob Corddry) and his overly-friendly girlfriend Joan (Amanda Peet), the boisterous Betty (Allison Janney) and Betty’s two kids Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Peter (River Alexander). Betty tries to push Duncan to hang out with Peter, who is younger than him and has a lazy eye that his mom is fond of drawing attention to every few minutes. But Duncan would much rather be getting to know Susanna, an older girl who is part of Steph’s beach clique.
Duncan begins sneaking away during the day, using Steph’s old pink princess bicycle to explore the town. That’s when he stumbles across Water Wizz, a water park run by sarcastic slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen takes a shine to Duncan and offers him a job as a park gopher for the summer. It’s under Owen’s tutelage that Duncan is able to come out of his shell and to have some fun. It’s also at that point that the film really hits its stride.
The film drags a bit in the beginning and is incredibly uncomfortable and difficult to watch at times because of just how reserved and introverted Duncan is. He’s a character that doesn’t stand up for himself or do a very good job expressing how he is feeling, so much of the first third of the film involves watching things happen to him that Duncan begrudgingly and passively accepts. This is important to set up the rest of the film, but it’s hard to watch and seems to go on for longer than it should. You feel bad for Duncan in this opening stretch, but it’s difficult to connect with him on an emotional level because he’s too closed off to let you know what he’s going through.
Owen’s arrival is when the film begins to find its way. A lot of that is because we finally get to see Duncan open up and express himself beyond the brooding and moping he does in the beginning of the film. Duncan is a sweet and thoughtful and funny kid and once he finds an outlet to express all of that, he is a joy to watch.
The other reason things pick up when Owen shows up is because Sam Rockwell is fantastic in the role. Owen is sarcastic and full of charisma and his desire to help Duncan come out of his shell feels heartfelt and genuine. Rockwell effortlessly nails the comedic parts and is able to easily switch gears from the funny moments to the genuine emotional beats without making it feel disingenuous. It’s a role Rockwell himself has compared to Bill Murray in Meatballs and Rockwell’s performance is just as memorable. His heart-to-heart talk with Duncan late in the film is absolutely perfect and is likely to bring a tear to your eye. Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about Rockwell in this film.
The supporting cast is strong as well. Toni Collette is always fantastic and this film is no exception. Steve Carell and Maya Rudolph (who plays Owen’s put upon coworker and love interest) both give very strong dramatic performances that play against type. AnnaSophia Robb is memorable as Susanna, injecting a lot of charm and personality into the role. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote and directed the film, both appear in fun cameo roles as employees at the water park.
I enjoyed Faxon and Rash’s decision to film the Water Wizz scenes inside an actual working water park. It’s a minor detail, but in doing so, it fills the background with real people who happened to be there at the park, which adds a lot of personality and quirkiness that they probably wouldn’t have gotten if they used a closed park filled with extras.
Ultimately, The Way, Way Back is a thoughtful and charming coming-of-age film featuring a memorable performance by Rockwell. If you are looking for a reprieve from the endless explosions and fistfights that dominate the box office this time of year, it’s a great change of pace.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.