The Way, Way Back, from writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, is the perfect end-of-the-summer film, following 14-year-old Duncan as he deals with possibly the worst and best summer of his life. Duncan is dragged by his mother, Pam, and her emotionally manipulative boyfriend, Trent, to a beach house in a community where the adults act like teenagers on spring break and their kids try to ignore them. Shortly after arriving, Duncan strikes up a friendship with Owen, the easy-going manager at the local water park, who hires him on to do odd jobs. Through Owen’s friendship and Duncan’s growing relationship with Susanna, the elusive girl-next-door, Duncan finally begins to stand up for himself and find his place in this strange, strange world.
While these themes and storylines may sound familiar, The Way, Way Back still feels fresh and believable. This film breaks through today’s overwhelming trend to indulge in cynicism, instead drawing the audience into its world and characters. The script and dialogue are excellent. Conversations flow realistically, never feeling forced or cheesy. Even stock scenes feel natural in this film, such as Duncan and Susanna’s moonlit walk on the beach, or the moment when Duncan finally stands up against Trent for his mother’s sake.
The characters also avoid falling into stereotype, due in a large part to the outstanding cast. Liam James plays Duncan with a stilting shyness but a willing heart, once he gets out from under the thumb of Trent. His slow transformation is subtle but has the audience rooting for him whole-heartedly. Sam Rockwell is at his most likeable as Owen, his typical bad-boy persona relaxed into a caring, if somewhat irresponsible, father-figure with perfect comedic timing. Toni Collette plays Pam with the perfect balance of vulnerability and desperation, helping the audience to sympathize with a mother who spends most of the film choosing her controlling boyfriend over her son. Finally, Steve Carell obviously has fun with the role of Trent, playing the self-absorbed, sleazy boyfriend just subtly enough to be believable.
While awkward adolescence definitely isn’t new territory, The Way, Way Back manages to make it even more palpable for the audience. The film deftly avoids the slapstick schlock that many films indulge in and goes for the more difficult method, dragging out uncomfortable moments just long enough for the audience to sympathize with Duncan. When Duncan finally does begin to find his own place at the water park, his triumphs feel warm and genuine.
The Way, Way Back isn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary. It doesn’t particularly challenge any held ideas or try to change the viewer. However, this film goes for the gut with the awkward truth of growing up, dealing with your parents’ imperfect behavior, and trying to carve out your own niche.
And by the end of the film, you can’t help but cheer.