There is something compelling about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s new coming of age comedy, The Way Way Back. In the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Moonrise Kingdom, The Way Way Back unfolds in a deliberately subtle way, drawing audiences in with charm and substance.
The story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a wallflower who spends the summer with his mother at her new boyfriend’s seaside resort home on the East coast. Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) hopes the trip will give Duncan a chance to bond with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) as well as give Duncan a chance to make some friends and come out of his shell. Things do not go as planned as Trent’s overbearing personality clashes with Duncan’s, and Steph is more interested in getting a tan than hanging out with Duncan causing him to feel more isolated and undervalued than ever. It is not until he stumbles upon the nearby Water Wizz waterpark and unexpectedly befriends its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell) that Duncan discovers who he really is and what is most important.
It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is about The Way Way Back that is so engaging. On the surface, it is simply a story about a young boy who doesn’t fit in until he meets a group of confident, expressive people that teach him to value himself. This is all well and good, but there is more to this film than just that. What writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made is a subtle allegorical film that symbolically captures the nature of growing up, and that’s what makes it special. Scenes where characters argue over the rules of Candy Land, discuss the ocular abilities of ghost crabs, and ponder the mythology of what happens within the tube on a waterslide all assist in deepening the figurative message of the film.
Furthermore, the film sets its aim on the hypocrisy of adults who have it set in their mind that they deserve an extended childhood of poor decision making but shouldn’t expect such behavior from their own children. Many of the adults in the film are seen shouting orders to their kids, setting curfews for their kids, and giving advice about how their kids should act only to turn around and get fall-down drunk, cheat on each other, and disappear all hours of the day and night. This is perhaps the film’s most dynamic and serious theme and it is worth noting that the film does not attack the idea of an extended childhood for adults, but rather it attacks childish adult role models who have unrealistic expectations for those who look up to them, given the example they set. This point is most successfully made in the character of Owen. As a water park manager and perpetual goofball, Owen is constructed as a foil to the other adults in the film. His character is honest and dependable while also being a child at heart. The relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan is touching and welcomed.
Beyond the writing, what makes The Way Way Back such an enjoyable and poignant film is its ensemble cast. James is very good as Duncan, who in the film’s first act successfully depresses the audience with his extreme “introverted-ness.” Collette expertly reveals Pam’s conflicted nature throughout the film, and Rockwell gives an immensely enjoyable performance as Owen where he gets a chance to showcase his warmth and quick wit rather than his usual quirky, off kilter types. Steve Carrell does well against type as the highly unlikable Trent and Allison Janney adds one more scene stealing role to her already abundant resume as Trent’s neighbor, Betty. Additional side characters are well cast including Duncan’s potential love interest, Susanna (Annashophia Robb), mismatched couple Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), and Owen’s girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph). The strength of the cast and the film’s symbolic texture do well to balance out the fairly predictable story and the audience familiarity with the shuffling, depressed American teenager (which is becoming a somewhat unwelcomed cliché). Rash, fresh off of his Screenwriting Oscar for 2011’s The Descendants, emulates his enigmatic title by illustrating that he will not be sent to the “way way back” of the film industry any time soon. B+
The Way Way Back is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes. As summer winds its way to a close, this is a fitting film to make an effort to find and see.