Apparently the only movies I’m reviewing these days are extreme horror films and touching coming of age stories, with the latter being much less frequent but entirely necessary to break up the countless attacks of violence and perversion. Since I’ve recently reviewed Hatchet III and The Purge, indulging in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back was a welcomed change of pace, especially since I was still riding the whole coming of age genre high that was The Kings Of Summer. I mean hell, how could I not be excited after Oscar winning writers/first time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash floored audiences at Sundance with their wet and wild dramedy, striking a deal with Fox Searchlight for $9.75 million?
Our story follows a young boy named Duncan (Liam James) as he’s forced to spend his summer trapped in a beach house with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend/owner of the house Trent (Steve Carell), and his obnoxious daughter. Wanting to start acting like a family, Trent and Pam try to bring everyone together, but the adults soon find themselves embracing a summer of fun with Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), leaving Duncan to awkwardly fend for himself. As he struggles adapting to Trent’s mannerisms, Pam’s embracing of Trent’s lifestyle, and his lack of familiarity with his surroundings, Duncan ends up befriending a water park manager named Owen (Sam Rockwell) who brings him on as an employee. Getting away from his family drama and looking to Owen as a mentor, we watch Duncan come into his own and actually start enjoying his summer, which even brings him to the attention of his cute neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
So was The Way, Way Back worth Fox Searchlight’s hefty investment? While the screenplay doesn’t reach the heights of our duo’s previous Oscar accreditation for The Descendants, brilliant performances bring most the characters to life in a way that makes you ignore a more generic genre story. Duncan’s search for happiness isn’t one that’s particularly game changing, although it does provide an insightful look into the effects divorce can have on family dynamics, and still provides a nice heartwarming story of inner-growth.
Starting in typical narrative fashion, Duncan is established as a loner and somewhat of a mama’s boy. Missing his father and hating his new”father figure,” we run through the motions of a struggling teen feeling out of place in new surroundings who’s just striving for some normalcy. Steve Carell steps into the unfamiliar role of a, for lack of a better term, “douchey” parental figure who treats Duncan like a nobody, almost punishing him for his apparent disapproval. It’s a vicious cycle Duncan enters, getting in trouble for actually going outside of the box like both parental figures want him to, but this is where Sam Rockwell comes in as water park manager Owen to save the day – and the entire film.
A lot of the scenes that place Duncan in his semi-hostile home environment aren’t particularly easy to watch or as full of emotion as we’d hope in a coming of age story, and characters like Trent, Pam, and Susanna fall to the wayside or are forgotten entirely in favor of more entertaining material happening while Duncan is at the water park. Pam and Trent’s relationship feels like nothing but a cheap lie, as Steve Carell forces being an out-of-character bro-father, and poor AnnaSophia Robb is…err…robbed of a generally applaudable performance by bigger and better themes we can focus on, again, like Sam Rockwell and the Water Wizz gang.
Sam Rockwell is a driving force throughout The Way, Way Back, playing a confident, quick-witted jokester who lives life by his own rules, a lifestyle he tries to make Duncan embrace. We’ve seen Rockwell play goofballs and fast-talkers before, but his character Owen may be one of his greatest characters yet because of the gentle kindness he shows towards Duncan, aided by the chemistry he shares with Liam James (Duncan). Rockwell’s guidance is snarky but nurturing, his interactions with the other workers are gut-busting (Faxon and Rash), and his own revelations are just as meaningful as Duncan’s. Simply put, calling Sam Rockwell a scene stealer in this film would honestly be an understatement.
In terms of comedy though, consider The Way, Way Back a more grounded and awkwardly serious film. When Rockwell wasn’t part of the picture, I actually rarely found myself laughing, even with a drunken Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet wandering about. We’re relieved of the seriousness once Duncan goes back to Water Wizz though, as his coworkers are made up of Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, and Maya Rudolph. The balance between these two groups felt very lopsided, and I actually dreaded seeing Duncan return to his bland and depressing home every night.
Give Liam James credit though, because the young star of The Killing absolutely nailed The Way, Way Back‘s coming of age awkwardness. There are a few particular scenes where I actually had to force myself to keep watching while my skin crawled out of nostalgic denial. Was I really that…that…lame as a child? Yes, yes I absolutely was (jury is out on if I still am) – and the character of Duncan made me remember that. I may hate Liam James for resurfacing these suppressed memories, but that’s a true testament to our main character’s fantastic performance.
What The Way, Way Back lacks in emotional depth and genre-bending prowess it makes up with genuinely lovable performances from most of the cast, working well to progress Duncan as an individual, but not as a struggling son. This may just be me, but I wish Faxon and Rash’s film could have just focused on Duncan coming into his own while working at Water Wizz, toning down the family drama. Rockwell and James share some very intimate moments together, don’t get me wrong, but the vibe I got from the Water Wizz cast gave me loads more enjoyment than Carell and Collette’s rivaling scenario. At the least we could have had greater doses of AnnaSophia Robb hanging around the park, making something meaningful out the the relationship she starts to form with James’ character – instead of just feeling like an empty plot point.
But that’s just me being over dramatic, because The Way, Way Back is still an admirably successful film with enough heart and soul to make it worth your hard earned dough (and Fox Searchlight’s for that matter). Duncan’s journey may not have been as consistently funny as I’d hoped, and some of the drama falls undeniably flat, but strong performances by Liam James and Sam Rockwell provide a dynamic relationship worth investing in. Water Wizz park will not be easily forgotten…