"The Way Way Back": Way Way Charming Review

This directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is a throwback to simpler days, even as it’s set in modern day. Curiously absent are smartphones, video game systems and televisions, but ever-present are teenage ennui, growing pains, and family drama, which 14-year old Duncan attempts to navigate in this charming coming-of-age tale.

The plot centers around introverted teenager, Duncan (Liam James), who is dreading spending his summer with his divorced mother’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrel) at his beach house on the Cape. It’s quickly apparent why; Carrel’s portrayal of the cold, vindictive anti-father-figure is a stark departure from the cuddly character we’re used to seeing from him play. In the opening scene, en route to the beach house Trent shouts back to Duncan (who’s seated in the “way way back”) to ask him how he would rate himself on a scale of 1-10. When Duncan offers a 6, Trent quickly rebuts him, saying he’s a 3 (“who says that?” Duncan later asks. We’re asking ourselves the same question).  Meanwhile, Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) is asleep in the passenger’s seat, and we wonder how things might’ve been different if she had heard that. Later, we learn it likely wouldn’t matter; Collette perfectly portrays the desperation of a divorcee of a certain age, terrified to end up alone, who settles for Trent despite his obvious flaws.

Upon arrival at the beach house, we’re introduced to a parade of colorful neighbors, including Betty, a loud and boozy Allison Janney and her teenage daughter Suzanna, who quickly becomes Duncan’s crush and his first foray into awkward teenage attraction. The rest of Trent’s friends run the gamut of dysfunction from alcoholics to oversharers and adulterers. Suzanna informs Duncan that summer on the Cape is “like Spring Break for adults”, and that certainly seems to be the case. Duncan is alienated in this world where adults act like kids and kids act like adults, so it’s no wonder he finds a bike in Trent’s garage and begins exploring the town on his own.

Soon, he discovers Water Wizz, an old-fashioned water park managed by Owen, a quirky-cool Sam Rockwell.  In one of the most entertaining roles of the movie, Rockwell is the impossibly confident jokester with the joy of a kid and the wisdom of a man. This puts him in the perfect position to serve as a confidante for Duncan, and eventually satisfy some of the father-son relationship Duncan has been secretly craving. Owen recognizes that the kid needs some work and offers him a job at the waterpark, which Duncan accepts with the enthusiasm any teenage boy would have when asked to work at a water park.  We watch Duncan evolve from a meek introvert, angry at his mother’s emotional abandonment, to a confident young guy who can barely contain his excitement once he’s welcomed into the ragtag crew at Water Wizz (including supporting roles from codirectors/cowriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash themselves).

Sure, it could be considered cliché: painfully awkward and shy teenage boy learns from more experienced (and hilarious) mentors and discovers a sense of identity (and even some cool!) against all odds. But there’s something different here. It’s the perfect balance of heavy and light, of old and new, of nostalgic and refreshing. For every loud and boisterous laugh-out-loud moment, there’s a quiet look between mother and son that conveys more than any dialogue could. The characters are flawed people, struggling to figure things out, drawn with believability that keeps the story interesting even as we can predict every turn in the larger plot.

It may not be especially groundbreaking, but it’s probably the most honest, sweet summer movie you’ll see. It doesn’t feel contrived or “Hollywood”; it feels like real people and a real story that takes you through a whole range of emotions. Take a ride in The Way Way Back for a highly personal cathartic and nostalgic experience that ends on a hopeful note and leaves you wanting more.

"The Way Way Back" opens July 5, 2013 and is rated PG13. Drama. Directed by Jim Rash, Nat Faxon. Written by Jim Rash, Nat Faxon. Starring Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, Liam James, Maya Angelou, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette.

Jul
07
2013
Ashley Higgins • Staff Writer

An unabashed movie junkie, Ashley spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the screen, watching just about anything she can get her hands on, with a special soft-spot for old Hollywood and anything clever and thought-provoking. 

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