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.
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.
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.