A teen coming of age story set in small town, beach side America, where a 14 year-old boy learns about love, life and that crazy notion of adults not having all the answers. Seen that film before? Would you want to see it again despite knowing the revelations the protagonist will probably have? What if Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Colette starred in it and the show was run by Jim Rash and Nat Faxton, who won an Oscar for The Descendants? Could they do anything different with the familiar formula? My review of The Way Way Back after the jump.
Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and of course is going through teen angst. He has an oblivious mother, Pam (Toni Collette), a rude and inconsiderate step father, Trent (Steve Carrell) and an ungrateful and rude step sister, Steph (Zoe Levin). Much to his dismay,they’re spending the summer at Trent’s beach house. Duncan, at this point is quiet, moody and just wants to be with his father for the Summer, instead of with a family who doesn’t want to associate with him.
At the water park on the other side of town Duncan finds a place he can escape. There he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the park who takes a liking to Duncan. Owen is loud, crazy, immature but also very kind and friendly to just about anyone. He takes Duncan under his wing and gives him a job at the park. From here on in, he makes friends, grows confidence and learns the ways of the world from Owen and the other water park employees. The only thing preventing him from really enjoying it all is the dire situation at home. His stepfather’s getting worse and his mother’s becoming more and more submissive and ignorant of the state of their family. Will his mother see things from his perspective and see how horrible Trent really is? And just how much about life can Duncan learn from the employees at the water park?
From Almost Famous to the recent The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the coming of age tale is one that has to embrace clichés. You know the set up, and you can almost guess the conclusion. The success of these films lies in your understanding and liking of the protagonist – do we care about their dilemma? Are we hoping they find their moment of clarity or do we merely shout at the screen “You’re 14, shut up!”? The Way Way Back has a protagonist worth investing time in, but this takes time to develop. Initially Duncan offers us little but moping at angst and it’s hard to engage with him. However, as we spend more time with him (particularly away from Trent), he becomes a character we adore and admire.”
The performances are strong, especially those from Allison Janney as the friendly alcoholic neighbour, River Alexander as her kind son and Maya Rudolph as a considerate fellow water park employee. Above all, The Way Way Back is something special due to Sam Rockwell’s performance and the writing of his character, Owen, which is the strong point in the film’s screenplay. He is not that stereotypical annoyingly immature guy that everyone somehow likes. This character is funny, sweet, insightful, friendly and it’s that minute when he takes a liking to Duncan that the film soars. His dialogue is quotable and even endearing. Here’s a character that’s incredibly funny and wonderful yet doesn’t sacrifice brain cells to be as such.
The only true downfall is one character [and without spoiling], who we want to believe has depth, when in fact they’re simply a story device. It’s a real waste of this person’s talent. That aside, The Way Way Back is immaculately directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxton who are patient with every moment in the film. It has a screenplay that makes you just want to hug every character you encounter, as they’re for the most part intelligent, sweet and genuine. With a soundtrack that’s greater than any playlist you could create and a performance and character that’ll restore your faith in humanity, The Way Way Back earns its place among the best of the coming of age stories we know and identify with. Don’t be too surprised when you find yourself getting kicked out of your local cinema for attempting to hug the screen.
By Chris Elena
Director: Jim Rash and Nat Faxton
Writer(s): Jim Rash and Nat Faxton
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney
Runtime: 103 minutes
Release date: USA: July 5 2013; Australia: August 1 2013; New Zealand: August 8 2013.