Editor’s Notes: The Way, Way Back is out on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, October 22nd.
I’ve been on these trips: where you reluctantly visit a remote cottage so your parents can escape in spite of your entrapment. You’re simply bored, and everywhere you look the fun is happening around and without you. What you seek is motivation – the need and means to find a purpose that makes you feel happy and received.
Such a journey is perfect for a film of “Sundance fare”, a pejorative kind of term for movies at the Sundance Film Festival that are so obviously enjoyable there has to be something wrong with them. The Way, Way Back may have played at Sundance, but it’s enjoyable straight to the end and there’s “almost” no disingenuousness about it. It’s crowd-pleasing, but because it is true-to-life and not simply hitting on the familiar, digestible emotional notes.
It’s crowd-pleasing, but because it is true-to-life and not simply hitting on the familiar, digestible emotional notes.
It comes to no surprise that the writer-directors of this latest sun-soaked dramedy are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote with Alexander Payne the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the wonderful The Descendants. The Way, Way Back tells a similar tale with how it centres on a nebbish, down-and-out male trying to overcome a perpetual state of monotony and family conflict.
This time though the leading man is not played by the middle-aged George Clooney, but youngster Liam James as Duncan, the hobbling, extremely jaded protagonist who gets the news from stepfather Trent (Steve Carell), in what can barely be called a “conversation” with Duncan’s unresponsiveness, that he is a “3” (you know that rating game). Duncan has the rest of his stay at a beach town to, basically, come of age and find whatever makes him happy.
At first, happiness or any sort of promised land seems unlikely with the crazy family friends on board. You have chatty Kip (Rob Corddry) and flirtatious Joan (Amanda Peet), along with an overprotective mother Betty (Allison Janney) and lazy-eyed Peter (River Alexander), whom the former hassles Duncan for a playdate with the latter. But the sun shines on the pretty Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who identifies with Duncan’s outsider anxiety.
Surrounding company aside, The Way, Way Back is essentially Duncan’s story and it stirringly captures the sentiments of growing up and taking agency over one’s life. Duncan achieves this, not much of a spoiler really, by finding solace at an aging water park run by sparring partners Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) and Owen (Sam Rockwell, terrific here). Owen is the kind of character who communicates himself by light teasing. He’s a jokester, but he means to be taken seriously – and it’s implied that something about Duncan’s personality Owen relates and wishes to nurture.
The film expresses its emotions clearly, and the lessons about family, individuality, and young love are brightly earnest.
In fact, all the relationships in The Way, Way Back are communicated with crystal-clear precision. Credit obviously goes to venerable screenwriters Faxon and Rash, who actually play two of the main water park employees here (look out for them), as they are able to fashion drama leveled with realistic conflict and dialogue. The film expresses its emotions clearly, and the lessons about family, individuality, and young love are brightly earnest.
Granted The Way, Way Back is diminished by a few shortcomings. While the relationships are sharply drawn, much of the supporting cast is left out to dry as Duncan’s coming-of-age journey picks up. The adults are mostly meant for laughs, as they overindulge in the intricacies of alcohol, fine food, and suntan lotion. I also think the screenplay in its second half becomes a wee judgmental towards Carell’s character, which reduces character complexity at the expense of drama.
The film also meanders a bit as Duncan settles in at the water park and tries to find his footing as a fellow employee. While the comedy is abundant, you do notice a few cheats in the direction. Duncan’s character transition, for one, is very contrived as Faxon/Rash inject a single montage to showcase his turn into a more secure, charismatic young adult. The film closes appropriately, however, with the use of mother Pam (Toni Collette), who adds another tender side to the proceedings.
The Way, Way Back is still an immensely likable coming-of-age story full of vibrance, heart, and life lessons. You don’t feel its high-spirits are to gain the adulation of more gullible audience members. Instead, you can believe that its characters are human beings who had to confront their flaws before coming out on top. The Way, Way Back is a summer movie that fittingly fills you with the right kind of warmth.
[notification type=”star”]83/100 ~ GREAT. The Way, Way Back is an immensely likable coming-of-age story full of vibrance, heart, and life lessons. Enabled by endearing performers (particularly Sam Rockwell), Faxon and Rash’s sun-soaked comedy fills you with the right kind of warmth – a type of happiness you can willingly believe.[/notification]