Coming-of-age films are as old as the medium itself and have become almost synonymous with Sundance in recent years. So, it should be no shock that The Way, Way Back was not only a hit at the festival but also sold for a record amount in the festival’s history. Gladly, the film lives up to its reputation even if it doesn’t necessarily outreach it. It’s predictable in spots, although not distractingly so, but has a subtle undercurrent of human chaos and uncertainty which levels it above most others in its canon.
From first time directing team Jim Rash (better know as the Dean on Community) and Nat Faxon (long time bit player seen in the recently cancelled Ben and Kate), the duo are riding high after winning an Oscar for their The Descendants script — the script of The Way, Way Back actually landed them that gig — and are now ready to break out on their own. It may not be another Oscar winner but it proves that they’re no one hit wonders and they’re as adept behind the camera as they are on the page. What ultimately makes the film work is their ability to hit all the right — and, yes, sometimes predictable — beats while undercutting it with a genuinely great script that has enough depth to resonate but not so much that it overpowers the ubiquitous nostalgia of a teenage summer vacation flick. The fact that the cast, which include bit parts by both Rash and Faxon, are all great doesn’t hurt either.
Duncan (Liam James) is 14 and forced to go on summer vacation with his recently divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his slightly older daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Unfortunately, Trent is kind of a jerk and the already introverted Duncan only recedes further into his shell. When they arrive at Trent’s beach home they are all immediately introduced to a cast of zany characters, namely their neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) who only stops talking long enough to down a drink. Her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is an old summer friend of the superficial, gossipy Steph but has distanced herself from the usual summer clique. Since Pam appears more invested in her relationship with Trent than her son, Duncan distances himself even further from the superficial family he doesn’t one. He ends up at Water Wizz, a local water park, and befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manchild manager who recognizes a woundedness within Duncan.
As in any coming-of-age film, Duncan’s tasked with reconciling his vision of the world with the reality of it. Trent makes overtures to establish a relationship but Duncan doesn’t recognizes them genine. Rather, he sees a guy looking play nice with his girlfriend’s son rather than become a father figure. Any other actor could have played Trent as just a plain jerk, but Carrell infuses him as a bit more ambiguous. He comes off as domineering and subtly controlling, but he does have his moments of sincerity and clarity which only further complicates Duncan’s relationship with him.
But it’s perhaps Rockwell who’s the real rock star of the film as Owen. He’s the one that notices Duncan needs saving, and really just some good old-fashioned fun. But, as Duncan and the audience learn, Owen isn’t really the greatest role model. He knows how to have fun but when it comes to responsibility he avoids it at all costs, especially to the chagrin of crush Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) who has to pick up his slack despite harboring mutual affection for him. Yet, none of this is blatant or overdone. It comes out naturally through a script that doesn’t force anything and through great acting. It may not be the most original film but it has a real affinity for its characters and the complicated reality of growing up.
Rating: 4 out of 5