The lightweight comedy/drama The Way Way Back is an archetypal “shy teen comes-of-age” film. As such, the storyline and many of the characters seem very familiar as if they were plucked from other movies but this doesn’t diminish this film’s considerable charm. For a relatively small, low-key film, it features a remarkable cast of name actors including Steve Carrell, Toni Colette, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry.
The film centres on emotionally repressed 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) whose mother Pam (Toni Collette) has just started a relationship with the pushy, irritating recently-divorced Trent (Steve Carrell). Trent’s inability to connect with Duncan becomes apparent in the opening scene as the family drive to a summer holiday destination and Trent rudely interrogates the hapless youngster about his purpose in life. Despite spending the summer in an idyllic beach-side holiday setting, Duncan is isolated, miserable and constantly humiliated by the creepy Trent. To keep his sanity, Duncan spends the holiday exploring the local town where he discovers a place he actually feels at home, the local aquatic fun park, Water Wizz.
The Way Way Back occasionally recalls The Graduate in its wry depiction of confused and disillusioned youth dealing with obnoxious hypocritical adults. It also has echoes of Adventureland as Duncan spends most of his time at Water Wizz and befriends its irresponsible party-animal manager Owen (Sam Rockwell).
With his brooding, downcast look, hunched shoulders and monosyllabic speech, Liam James perfectly evokes in Duncan that awkward phase so many teens battle through. His character is very reminiscent of Logan Lerman, the troubled kid in Perks of Being a Wallflower but without the disturbing back story. The Way Way Back is, overall, a quirkier and sunnier movie than Wallflower although it does contain some very poignant and touching moments.
For a film that’s partly comedy The Way Way Back isn’t exactly bursting with laughs although Allison Janney’s typically inspired performance as the perpetually sozzled, oversexed neighbour is a comic highlight. Jim Rash, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, is also a riot as the contemptuous, uber-nerdy, germaphobe Water Wizz employee Lewis. The film has brief brain snaps where it transforms into a Meatballs-style low-brow comedy with underage boys perving on scantily clad women. Fortunately, though, The Way Way Back manages to recover its senses.
It’s a little odd to see a major star like Steve Carrell playing second fiddle to a 14-year-old but he’s convincing going against type as the dislikeable Trent. It’s a welcome relief to see Toni Collette return to a more nuanced role after the shrieking abomination that was her character in Mental. She poignantly portrays a woman so desperate to re-establish a family she fails to see the damage her relationship with Trent is doing to her son. As Owen, the world’s laziest manager, Sam Rockwell is his usual laid-back, amusing and very likeable self. He’s also an unlikely hero in some of the film’s most moving scenes. Despite a slightly underwritten role, young actress AnnaSophia Robb delivers a natural and charming performance as Suzanna, Duncan’s girl-next-door romantic interest. A subplot about her breaking away from her mean girl clique and in effect, feeling some of Duncan’s isolation is, unfortunately, never fully developed.
Although it shifts erratically from touching drama to 80’s-style teen comedy, The Way Way Back still maintains a warm and affectionate tone and a perceptive eye for teenage problems that will resonate with many audiences.
Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.
Director(s): Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Release date: 1st Aug 2013
Running time: 103 mins.
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