Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

Directed by – Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Written by – Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Starring – Liam James, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph & Rob Corddry

Hot off the back of their joint success as the writers of 2011’s surprise hit The Descendants, Faxon and Rash return with this simple but effective tale of teenage self-discovery, told through the eyes of a shy and retiring young boy named Duncan (James; Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, 2012). In a year in which we’ve been treated to a veritable smorgasbord of fresh coming-of-age movies, from The Kings of Summer to Mud (both of which I loved) from Blue is the Warmest Colour to The Spectacular Now (both of which I’ll be seeing very soon) and all the lesser efforts in between, Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back slots in just nicely. Sure, it might be the most generic effort of the lot but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of both comedy and drama.

The film tells the age-old story of a teenager who discovers himself during a summer holiday. Forced to go a beach house with his Mum (Collette; The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine), her new partner Trent (Carell; Anchorman, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and Trent’s daughter Steph (played by Zoe Levin), socially-awkward Duncan struggles to fit in with the strange, boisterous people who populate Cape Cod. After a while Duncan decides to explore the town – if only to get away from the bizarre individuals who call themselves Trent’s friends – and strikes up a friendship with Owen (Rockwell; Moon, Iron Man 2), the immature but likable manager of the local water park, who helps him come out of his shell while also learning a thing or two about himself in the process.

The Way Way Back - 2013

The best thing about The Way, Way Back is that it isn’t just a teenage self-discovery film. No, it’s also a “coming-of-middle-age” film so it has a rare, almost universal appeal. The plot is basic enough and takes its inspiration from lots of American comedies – some good, some erm… not so good – but the film has a genuine warmth and charm that sucks you in and keeps a hold until the very end. This is primarily down to the likability of Duncan, who is just wonderfully written. Everything about him – from his social awkwardness, to his hatred of the family holiday and his total lack of self-esteem – reminds me of what I was like when I was his age and while James is one of the film’s weaker performers, he grants the character a sense of innocence and believability. His adventure is one the audience can really invest in, relate to and get behind, especially when he turns the inevitable corner in his relationships with both his Mother and her vile boyfriend, and though James struggles when he is required to display strong emotion he is a likable performer and gives the film much of its soul.

However, the film excels not in its central performance but in the performances of the other characters. Sam Rockwell is brilliant in the role of Owen. He is hilarious and charming, but just a little bit broken too, and Rockwell is just magnificent in the part and commands your attention whenever he is on the screen. His relationship with Duncan is lovely and Owen as a character is a little bit like that teacher at school who was always cooler than all the others. Owen grows with Duncan and though he never loses his sense of cheeky fun, he learns to embrace responsibility and probably discovers just as much about himself from Duncan as he teaches him. Similarly, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, Carell is delightfully nauseating as Trent and provides Duncan and the audience with the perfect hate-figure. I’ve never liked Carell’s style of comedy and have always felt the urge to punch him in the face but, for perhaps the first time ever, that’s exactly the intended reaction. Trent is a bitter, spiteful and petty man who it is impossible to like even before you discover his secret and Carell, much to his credit, plays the part perfectly.

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If I were to make one criticism it would be that this – like The Kings of Summer and Mud – is very much a boy’s film. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it excludes women in anyway but the female characters are at times hugely underdeveloped. Most of them exist solely to test Duncan’s confidence, to make him nervous or to give him someone to pine after. Unlike the males, almost all of whom are multi-dimensional characters, the female characters fit a bunch of obvious stereotypes; the overbearing Mum, the alcoholic neighbour, the love-interest, the sensible mentor and so on and so forth. It’s a shame to be honest because the women playing these parts are all superb, especially Janney (American Beauty, The West Wing) whose turn as alcoholic Betty is one of the film’s funniest elements.

Nevertheless, The Way, Way Back is still a very solid film. It follows a well-worn path that all of us have been down countless times before but that doesn’t make it any less of an enjoyable experience. Unlike a lot of COA films, this one is fairly grounded in realism. It presents an accurate portrayal of an arduous and testing family vacation through the eyes of a believable teenager and tells a simple but entertaining story. It lacks the timelessness and misty-eyed joy of some of this year’s other / better COA films but it still has a sense of fun that is both infectious and hugely endearing.

Ultimately, The Way, Way Back is a pleasant and funny little film that knows what it wants to do and does it well. It doesn’t offer anything new, it won’t blow your mind and it’s far from the best film of its type but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve its place as one of the year’s more enjoyable efforts. With its combination of excellent performances, humorous dialogue and charming story, The Way, Way Back is no more and no less than a brilliant way to pass a couple of hours and I can easily see it becoming one of my go-to “films to watch when I’m bored” over the next couple of years, though that’s far from a bad thing.


Review also posted on Letterboxd