The Way, Way Back

By Joseph Saulnier

Prior to the press screening for The Way, Way Back I had little knowledge of the film. Despite the heavy hitters in this film, including Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell, I did not expect to be amazed by the movie. Even as I entered the theater and the studio reps were handing out sunglasses, t-shirts and beach balls I had little hope for the movie. Typically, great films are not promoted through cheap novelties.

Fortunately for us all, The Way, Way Back turned out to be a surprisingly delightful movie with a lot of heart. IT is way, way better than its marketing campaign, that’s for sure.

The movie centers on 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a kind of dorky and awkward teenager whose mother, Pam (Toni Collette), brings him along to an extended summer vacation on the Massachusetts coast. Duncan would rather be spending time with his father than his mother and her unlikeable boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his stuck up teenage drama-queen daughter, Steph (Zoe Levlin).

Duncan finds little of interest in the small beach town, and immediately feels alienated from the rest of his group. This is until he meets Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the brainy, older woman (16) who is staying next door with her hilariously blunt mother, Betty (Allison Janney), a friend of Trent’s. The two teens make an immediate, if not awkward connection, and share in the bond of thinking the town sucks, both being children of divorce, and their families are unbearable.

Aside from Susanna, Duncan finds an even better excuse to disappear and avoid the likes of his would-be family at the local water park, where he develops an unlikely friendship with Owen (Sam Rockwell), owner of Water Wizz. Sensing that Duncan is a lonely, outcast teen looking for place to belong, Owen hires him to work at the water park. Duncan is so alienated from his family that he doesn’t even bother mention to them that he is employed. Instead, he pretends to that he is just hanging out all day not really doing anything.

If this all sounds eerily familiar, it’s because The Way, Way Back follows a formula that most standard-issue summer vacation/coming of age movie does. But familiar isn’t always bad. The Way, Way Back has genuinely funny humor to it, and the characters are very relatable. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that you were comparing them to others in your life, or that you may have met along the way. I know I was.

In fact, the film’s undeniable charm lies in its appealing, and not so appealing, characters, all portrayed excellently by a cast with a surprising amount of credibility for a film of this genre. James, a relatively new name, plays Duncan superbly, displaying the sort of low self-esteem that drives other kids to mock him. Anyone who does, or has, ever retreated into a lonely, nerdy, self-absorbed world will understand his angst and immediately attach themselves to Duncan. Especially in the early scenes that Duncan shares with Susanna, who obviously terrifies him with her confidence and beauty.

Rockwell steals every scene he is in as the ever-wisecracking Owen. He is your typical summer comedy character that you see in every film of this sort – the fast-talking adult male prankster whom all the kids flock to – but Rockwell plays the part with great depth. Beneath all of his bravado and clowning, there is clearly a man who has a lot of soul and cares about those around him. This side of Owen is brought out by Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Owen’s park manager and sometimes girlfriend.

Carell takes on an unusual to most role as Trent, the films antagonist, if there really is one in this genre. He is one of the guys who is kind of a jerk, but not enough for you to really hate. Collette plays her part well, but doesn’t really get a significant amount of focus in the film. The funniest character of the fill is the over-the-top inappropriate Betty, a mom with a mean steak who does her best to embarrass her children and make everyone cringe with her nosy questions and open sexual frankness. Janney plays her with perfect comic timing.

I spoke with a friend, who also screened this movie, and he felt the movie played it too safe. He wanted it to explore the film’s darker themes more (family dysfunction, career frustration, teenage alienation) with much more insight. The one point I did agree with him was that Collette’s character was too underwritten to fully explain Pam’s tense relationships with, well… everyone. This is accentuated by the ending of the film where based on the buildup, I expected a much different action from her.

Still, The Way, Way Back is a delightful and smartly funny film that is sure to entertain you, and has a bit more gravitas than most summer comedies. I can tell you that I will be sporting my white “Ray-Ban”-esque sunglasses.

4 stars out of 5