REVIEW: “The Way, Way Back”

WAY WAY BACK Poster

I love it when a movie really surprises me. Such was the case with “The Way, Way Back”. This one-half comedy and one-half drama is a wonderful and entertaining stew that caught me off guard. Written and directed by the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is a warm and authentic coming-of-age picture. It’s a smart and funny film that at times dances close to cliché but then always turns and goes in a more smart and believable direction. It really worked for me.

Liam James plays Duncan, a sullen and awkward 14-year old who is trapped in a world of selfish, adolescent adults. He is forced to accompany his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), her jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) on a vacation to Trent’s summer home in a small New England beach town. Duncan’s life is full of complications. He is disconnected from his emotionally needy mother and at constant odds with the annoying and disingenuous Trent. Then there are the assortment of oddball characters from his new summer neighborhood none of which give him a feeling of belonging.

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But things change a bit when Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a laid back water park manager. Owen takes a liking to Duncan and actually connects with him on a level that the struggling teen desperately needs. Rockwell is fabulous here and he gives arguably the funniest performance of the year. He’s obviously a naturally funny guy and you’ll swear you’re watching improvisation as he delivers one quick-witted funny line after another. Faxon and Rash along with Maya Rudolph have small roles as fellow water park employees and they round out what becomes Duncan’s sanctuary. It’s where feels free. It’s where he feels he belongs.

One of the film’s great strengths is that the story is told almost entirely from Duncan’s perspective. We see his perception of dysfunctional adults, broken marriages, and juvenile behavior from those who should be anchors of support. It really is the adults who are the irresponsible and objectionable ones. As one equally frustrated young character describes it – “It’s spring break for adults” and not in a good way. But there are always cleverly injected bits of humor that keeps the tone a tad lighter than it may sound. Much like their previous Oscar-winning work on “The Descendants”, Rash and Faxon’s script takes on serious life situations and laces them with subtle bits of comedy. It’s great writing that will have you laughing one minute and feeling deep empathy the next.

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This is a character-driven movie and the performances don’t disappoint. The relatively unknown Liam James is just what the lead role needed. He’s restrained and grounded which allows for so much truth to flow from the character. I also really liked Steve Carell in a role that is drastically different from what we’re used to seeing him do. It’s interesting that the biggest comedian in the entire cast has the most serious role in the film. Allison Janney is a lot of fun as a spacey next door neighbor and Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are delightfully insufferable as two of Trent’s close friends.

The story of an insecure socially displaced youth isn’t new, but often times it’s told using the same overused formulas and contrivances. “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t exactly carve a new path but it does stay out of the usual trappings. It’s refreshingly honest and surprisingly funny. There are also some fabulous characters brought to life through some good acting led by Rockwell. His performance was a real eye-opener for me. The soundtrack, the perfect pacing, etc. As I said, it’s a wonderful and entertaining stew and I was hooked from the first scene. What a nice surprise.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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43 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Way, Way Back”

  1. Number three on my list. Allison Janet cracks me up every time she is on screen. Throw Sam Rockwell in for good measure and you are two thirds of the way to bliss. The story is familiar but feels so fresh.

  2. Outstanding write-up Keith! Happy to hear you love it as much as I do! Rockwell is the complete package in this film, one of his finest performances to date.

    By the way, would you mind popping over to my site and voting in the poll for your 3, best films of 2013? It’d mean a lot, trying to get as many people including as possible. Thanks!

    Again. Great job :).

    • I’d love to vote! Not sure how I missed it.

      Yep, this is a wonderful film and a huge surprise for me. I love it when a movie comes out of nowhere and catches me off guard!

  3. Great movie! I loved Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Two of my favourite performances of the year. That being said, everyone was on form here. Including Carell, who I’m not normally find of. Great write-up, man. Good to hear to hear you enjoyed this one.

  4. I mostly agree. Definitely very funny, and the best part: humor is quickly and frequently turned into emotion (think unclogging the water slide).

    I also agree Carrell’s performance is the best in this movie, though none are bad.

      • Rockwell’s was certainly more flashy and was also brilliant. But because Owen is so much better written than Trent (I think the latter easily the movie’s greatest flaw, and a huge one at that), I think Carrell’s performance more impressive. Carrell almost disguises the fact that his character is a near caricature. It takes a special actor to do that.

      • Interesting take. I agree he was a bit of a caricature but he’s also reminiscent of some very real people out there. And I think it was his characterization that revealed the biggest flaw in Duncan’s mother. I guess I’m saying that I think all if the characters worked for me because they effected other characters in a very genuine way.

      • I mostly agree with that statement.

        The trouble is life can often be stranger than fiction. Because most people in the world have some merit in addition to flaws, audiences goers expect characters in character driven dramas to be both good and bad. Trent isn’t. He’s just bad. A bad father. A worse boyfriend. A terrible would be stepfather.

        Even if real life people can be this “evil,” characters in introspective coming of age stories shouldn’t be. I wish he’d had just one, only one, positive trait.

      • Sound point. I just wasn’t looking for anything else from him. Honestly he was simply serving the greater story and I didn’t think that main story needed much deeper from him.

        That said, I don’t think what you’re saying is wrong either. It would have added an interesting dynamic if he had a bit more to him.

  5. Keith, I’m glad to hear that you’re also a fan. This was one my favorites of the year and just so enjoyable. I love the communal feeling of the water park employees, which is familiar to me from my jobs working at the local zoo in high school. They capture it really well, and Rockwell is so good.

  6. Absolutely great review Keith! I hear good things and it is on my list to check out, it seems it was quite the solid flick! I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much!

  7. Glad to hear another high praise for this one. I’ve been meaning to check it out as I really like the cast (esp. Rockwell and Collette), now I shouldn’t put it off any longer. Thanks Keith!

  8. Good review Keith. The material isn’t anything entirely special, but with the ensemble they have here, it becomes an unforgettable flick that’s probably best viewed during the summer.

    • Thanks man! I think the material does dance close to familiarity but never falls over into cliche. That’s one of the many things I really appreciated about it.

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  10. Read this earlier and meant to comment – I enjoyed reading. I’ve yet to see this but heard a lot of positive things so will definitely try and watch it this year!

  11. Raising hands. Another fan of this movie here! The opening scene is just SO good, the one in the car. Within a couple of minutes you get everything, and this with only a short dialogue. Very good writing there imo.
    The only thing I didn’t like was how the harassment of girls in bikinis was sort of endorsed. But it’s a minor thing. On the whole it was wonderful.

    • Thanks Jessica! Great to hear you’re a fan too. I had such a blast with the movie. And you’re right, that opening scene is excellent and it certainly does set the table nicely.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and I appreciate the comments. I’m with you 100%. This was a huge surprise for me and it made its way fairly high on my Top 10 list as well. Never saw this one coming.

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