Way Way Back, The (United States, 2013)

July 16, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Way Way Back, The Poster

As the end credits for The Way Way Back started to roll, I found myself wistfully wishing there could be a sequel to this movie. It's not because the narrative feels incomplete or because there are dangling plot threads. Instead, it's simply because I wouldn't mind spending another two hours with these people. Well developed, effectively realized characters are such a rarity these days that, on the rare occasion when I encounter them, I don't want to let them go.

The Way Way Back doesn't set out to blaze new trails. In fact, it follows a well-trodden path - that of the coming-of-age tale. My sense is that the more autobiographical details one encounters in a coming-of-age story, the better it's likely to work on the individual viewer. For me, that observation is borne out in The Way Way Back. In the lead character, Duncan (Liam James), I see more than a passing echo of who I was at age 14: socially awkward, uncomfortable around girls - a square peg in a round hole. Like Duncan, when I went on vacation, the last thing I wanted to do was hang out with my family. Consequently, watching The Way Way Back, I occasionally saw Duncan as a stand-in for myself. Nostalgia often tinges our memories in soft, warm colors; something like The Way Way Back reminds us of the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy.

Duncan's family situation is a bit of a mess. His divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), has hooked up with Trent (Steve Carell), the single dad of a teenage daughter. Trent seems like an okay guy but his brand of "tough love" with Duncan is woefully misplaced and his lack of tact when it comes to past (and possibly current) flings puts a strain on his relationship with Pam. Duncan mopes around Trent's beach house, trying to avoid Trent, his mother, and the habitually drunk next-door lady, Betty (Allison Janney). Meanwhile, he's attracted to Betty's blond daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), but doesn't have a clue what to do about it. His attempt to hold a conversation with her results in an uncomfortable two minutes.

Duncan's vacation is saved when he discovers "Water Wizz," a local water park and, against expectations, he discovers that he fits in among the oddballs who work there. The park's manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), takes a liking to the awkward young kid and offers him a job. Duncan spends his days among the pools and slides of a place that hasn't been updated since the '80s (an era in which the entire movie at times seems trapped) while increasingly trying to avoid the tense situation at home. Susanna, strangely intrigued by Duncan despite his gawkiness, starts following him around to learn where he goes when he disappears for hours on end.

In part because of the summer amusement park setting and in part because it depicts the emotional growth of a boy approaching young adulthood, The Way Way Back recalls the underrated Adventureland. For those looking for a more recent analog, it also echoes The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The Way Way Back is a thoroughly charming motion picture with believable situations and credible characters. There's no "bad guy" to speak of. Even Trent is more flawed than villainous. He wants things to work with Pam and Duncan; he simply isn't equipped for fidelity or parenthood.

The film is the directorial debut of the writing duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who have supporting roles as workers in the water park - Faxon is the guy with the plan to get a good look at girls in bikinis and Rash is the man in the "booth no one visits"). These two, who previously wrote The Descendants, understand human nature and what makes for a compelling coming-of-age story. Duncan's tale is about his development as a person. It's about him becoming more comfortable about being in his own skin. It's about him gaining the compunction to stand up for himself. And, while it's not really about him getting a girl, there's a little of that in there as well. Most importantly, it's about him reconnecting with the most important person in his life outside of himself: his mother.

The Way Way Back features several nice performances. Chief of these belongs to Sam Rockwell, the respected and quirky character actor who often surfaces in this kind of low-budget indie film. Rockwell is in top form, delivering Faxon and Rash's dialogue with rat-a-tat precision and generating one of those offbeat individuals whose charisma is undeniable. Rockwell hasn't been this good since Moon. Toni Collette, who's something of a chameleon, gives us a lot more than a generic "mom" - here's a woman with needs who's trying to balance her son's interests with her own. Steve Carell, who's as likeable an actor as there is, makes Trent unsympathetic without turning him into an ogre. Finally, there's Liam James, who effortlessly embodies teenage angst and awkwardness before blooming in a winning fashion.

Watching The Way Way Back is like taking a vacation from all the bigger, louder productions that threaten to keep it off multiplex screens. It's funny, affecting, and appealing, and more worthy than much of what's out there. Often, coming-of-age stories rely forcefully on formulaic narrative developments but The Way Way Back remains fresh from start to finish.

Way Way Back, The (United States, 2013)

Director: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Cast: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph
Screenplay: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Cinematography: John Bailey
Music: Rob Simonson
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2013-07-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1