Plot: Awkward teen Duncan (Liam James) is off to spend his summer vacation with his mom (Toni Collette) and her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) at Trent’s beachfront summer house. Duncan, miserable with his situation, finds an unlikely friend in the smart-alecky manager of a local water park (Sam Rockwell) who wrangles a band of off-the-wall employees (including Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash).
The awkward summer coming-of0age film is probably one of the most cliché-riddled type of films out there. You already know the movie — awkward outcast teen who can’t relate to his family or life meets a band of misfits who accept him as one of their own. Through this acceptance, he learns how to live life, communicate/deal with his family and of course, make out with the pretty girl. Cue emotional power ballad, teary-eyed scenes of saccharine melodrama, overwrought monologues and resolution presented in a neat and ultimately boring manner.
The Way Way Back does adhere to the tried and true structure of the coming-of-age film, but it leaves all the cliches, melodrama and forced sincerity on the side of the road. It’s refreshing to see a film like this avoid the easy (and lazy) pitfalls a film can lay before it.This shouldn’t come as a surprise especially when you’ve got a cast of this magnitude and a writing and directing team who’s won an Oscar for their last comedy/drama (The Descendants).
Whoever cast this film should be commended, because they picked the best possible ensemble to bring this script to life. Liam James (The Killing) is the perfect embodiment of the gawky teenage boy. From his deafening silence to his slouched posture, James makes the audience feel awkward as his character Duncan is throughout the entire film. You literally feel the emotional pain that Duncan goes through, cringing with him as he’s stung by another barb from Trent’s never ending barrage of verbal jabs. And of course, this only makes the film that much sweeter when he breaks out of his shell.
Outside of James, there’s terrific supporting work here from Toni Collette as Duncan’s fragile and doting mother, Allison Janey as an eternally sozzled neighbor, AnnaSophia Robb (The Carrie Diaries) as Duncan’s pretty but still somewhat awkward love interest, Maya Rudolph as a frustrated water park employee and the film’s writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rasch as two, lifelong employees of the water park.
Yet, it’s Sam Rockwell and Steve Carrell who bring the best performances to the table as the ying and yang of the important male figures in Duncan’s life. And this should come as a surprise to no one.
Steve Carrell gives probably one of his cinematic greatest performances since Little Miss Sunshine. Much like in LMS, Carrell plays the anti-Steve Carrell character. There’s no charmingly befuddled nice guy comedic lead here. No, Carrell’s Trent is, quite frankly, a complete and utter asshole. What’s brilliant about the performance is that Carrell takes all the nuances of that ‘nice guys’ he always portrays and breathes such a douchey male chauvinistic life into the it.
Then there’s Sam Rockwell, who steals the entire film. As Owen, the wisecracking, fun-loving Obi Wan Kenobi to Duncan, Rockwell is so charismatic and charming that you just hang on everything he says. He’s just such a cool character — an eternal fountain of one-liners and a true harbinger of joy to the film. His character is fully introduced to us mere moments after we delivered a pretty constant and somewhat intense stream of painfully awkward scenes featuring Duncan and his family.
Yet, what the writers did with Rockwell’s character was to root him in a sense of realism. There’s a great scene where the happy-go-lucky curtain of Owen’s life is pulled back and he reveals to Duncan that life at the water park isn’t as amazing as it’s cracked up to be and that he, like Duncan, suffered the indignities of an overbearing male figure in his life. Yet it’s done a tasteful, tearless way. No big sweeping score, no tears, just honesty.
The Way Way Back is a genuinely funny, sweet and emotional film. It’s a film that’s not unlike the summer season — filled with sullen, gloomy rainy days of depression and glowing, carefree days of pure sunny-ness. It’s such an enjoyable film, one this reviewer would gladly go back to see again.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight.