Review: The Way Way Back

I ditched out of work early on Friday and headed out to spend an enjoyable summer afternoon watching an enjoyable summer movie. But not a summer tentpole. No, not this time. On this particular Friday, I selected something a bit on the smaller side, pushing heart over spectacle.
The Way Way Back is the story of Duncan (Liam James), an awkward fourteen year old who has been dragged away to a beach town somewhere in New England by his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Trent’s pissy teenage daughter (Zoe Levin) is also along for the ride. Duncan is in the middle of an adolescent rough spot – he’s uncomfortable in his own skin (as you are when you are fourteen) and doesn’t really feel like he fits in anywhere.

And if that wasn’t enough, he has also had to weather parents’ fairly recent divorce and is dealing with the fact that his mom’s new boyfriend is a total dick. This fact is nicely established in the very first scene where Trent asks Duncan to rate himself (Duncan gives himself a 6, but Trent is quick to counter by giving him a 3). It sets up the relationship between the two of them perfectly – Duncan still trying to feel his way into adulthood, and Trent lording it over him that he’s not quite there yet, passing judgment at every wrong turn he takes. Trent isn’t an abusive monster – he’s just an incredible asshole. A fact that Pam is able to comfortably overlook, most of the time, as she is dealing with the pain and fear of being left alone and desperately wants her new relationship to work.

Anyway, when they get to Trent’s beach house, the adults immediately begin a summer-long booze party with the rest of the drunken neighbors (as the neighbor girl, Susanna [AnnaSophia Robb] puts it, “spring break for adults”), Duncan is left to his own devices and is looking down the barrel of a summer spent alone, avoiding everyone around him. Feeling more than a little out of place, he eventually grabs a bike and heads into town, where he discovers the wonders of the Water Wizz water park, managed (and that’s kind of a loose term) by Owen (Sam Rockwell).

I wasn’t entirely sure I was on board with this story until Sam Rockwell showed up. Then, everything was fine. As it always is. A quick note to Hollywood: Put Sam Rockwell in more things. In fact, put him in all the things. He is never not incredibly awesome.

Duncan’s overwhelming  awkwardness and Owen’s arrested development are a match made in heaven. In Owen, Duncan finds a confidence and relaxed nature that he has never known in himself. In Duncan, Owen finds a kid simply in need of a friend.  He acts as something of a surrogate big brother to Duncan, encouraging him to come out of his shell and to be comfortable with himself and does it all in the most charming way possible – steeped in humor and stunted adolescence.

Liam James  was a great casting choice as Duncan. He gives the character a really realistic brand of awkward (both emotionally and physically), which still imbibing him with a great deal of heart and making him perfectly relatable. And the supporting actors do a great job in rounding out this cast. From the partying grown-ups (Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Allison Janney) to the waterpark employees (including directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, as well as Maya Rudolph), they bring so much life to the two sides of this story.

The film stumbled a little along the way. Some of the jokes don’t quite stick and sometimes the pacing is a little off. It took a little while for the drunken adult party, in particular, to really sink in and hit its sweet spot and not come across as overly hammy.

But minor struggles aside, The Way Way Back remains a touching and heartfelt tale. At the heart of this movie is the story of a character who is coming into adulthood, yet is very much still a kid. He is old enough and mature enough to really see and understand the things going on around him for the first time, yet is still powerless to do anything about them. His mom is still going to make her stupid choices without really taking his input seriously because he is only 14, after all. But he can plainly see the destructive nature of the steps she is taking, and maybe understands them better than she does, because he has not yet been tainted by the jaded fear that comes with being hurt in adulthood.

The Way Way Back is a heart-touching story that is isn’t so much a coming-of-age piece as it is an exercise in coming-in-to-oneself. It’s making a limited theatrical run now, so if you get the chance, definitely try to check it out.