In The Way, Way Back, we see the world through the eyes of ungainly 14-year old Duncan (Liam James). Our young protagonist is forced to spend the summer with his divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s self-absorbed teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) at Trent’s beach house in Massachusetts. Duncan sneaks off to be alone as often as possible, since his home life has degenerated into one humiliating incident after another.
Life unexpectedly takes a turn for the better when Duncan wanders into the Water Wizz water park: a local amusement park that hasn’t been renovated in over thirty years, according to the establishment’s unambitious, yet roguish, manager Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen takes Duncan under his wing, making him an employee and encouraging the young man to crawl out of his shell… even if it means he has to swim against the current in order for Duncan to (wait for it) make his own way in life.
The world of The Way, Way Back is populated by stock characters and stereotypes, which is forgivable because the story is told from Duncan’s perspective (i.e. we only see what he sees). Problem is, as Duncan comes of age and begins to develop a deeper understanding of the world, how the film portrays the people and conflicts around him doesn’t evolve to an equal degree. Instead, the film’s predictable plot developments confirm what Duncan previously believed to be true (but did not say out loud), rather than acknowledge that he did not see the whole picture.
In other words, the Way, Way Back script – written by directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also play supporting roles) – offers too much of a romanticized look at adolescence, good and bad parts alike. In addition, the film begins to draw parallels between Duncan preferring the artificiality of an outdated water park populated by his fellow outcasts (when the actual beach is much closer), and how several of the grown-ups in his life are willing to settle for faux-happy relationships, rather than face the scary alternative: being middle-aged and single. It’s a good idea, yet that aspect of the story is left half-done (like the coming-of-age plot).
What ultimately saves The Way, Way Back from being total disappointment – and makes the movie funnier and more endearing than it could’ve been – is a great main cast. Steve Carell, as Trent, again demonstrates that he’s as good (better?) at drama as comedy, bringing depth and a misguided paternal sense to a character that could’ve easily been a one-note jerk. Similarly, Collette makes the most out of her scenes to show the insecurity boiling underneath Pam’s surface. Meanwhile, Rockwell charms and tosses out zingers with ease, yet handles the more serious moments involving Owen with equal grace.
James, as Duncan, is a bit of a vanilla protagonist, but that is partly intentional (he dresses and acts the role of a doofish teen boy almost too well). Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet play Trent’s friends, but amount to little more than plot devices; the same goes for Levin as Steph and AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna, the girl next door that Duncan falls for (their performances are all fine, but the script lets them down). Meanwhile, Faxon and Rash play quirky Water Wizz park employees (the latter’s a walking punchline); neither one is onscreen for long, but still feel a bit dispensable.
Maya Rudolph’s character Caitlin – the responsible member of the Water Wizz staff – isn’t onscreen for very long, but she does a good job at expressing why this lady would stick it out with the irascible Rockwell. However, the film’s big scene-stealer is easily Allison Janney as Betty: Susanna’s mother who is recovering from her divorce (which included her ex-husband coming out of the closet) by living out loud in every way possible. Similarly, her cross-eyed son Peter (River Alexander) is quite delightful in his few scenes, as a very likable young nerd.
Peter is constantly dismissed by his mother via snarky (not witty) dialogue, which calls back to the problems with the Way, Way Back screenplay. Thing is, it’s not so much an issue that Faxon and Rash use a tried-and-true coming of age story formula – complete with all the expected character tropes and themes – the issue lies more with how they balance elements of humor and heart. The comedy has a bad tendency to feel more sarcastic than clever, which clashes with the rich and raw humanity brought to the proceedings by the cast.
Faxon and Rash won their Oscars for co-writing The Descendants with filmmaker Alexander Payne, but the flaws in their script for that movie were better smoothed over by Payne’s direction. In Way, Way Back, Faxon and Rash’s lack of experience as directors shows, which results in a film that is overall banal in terms of visual construction and editing. However, there are instances where the shot choices and camerawork become more creative (see: the opening sequence or water slide POV shots), and, all things considered, the cinematography is never too dull.
As a whole, The Way, Way Back is a decent directorial debut for Faxon and Rash, but amounts to little more than a run-of-the-mill addition to the coming-of-age genre (despite committed and charming performances by the cast). It may not be a film that you need to run out and see in the theater – unless you’re suffering from summer blockbuster fatigue – but it’s worth a look, when it become available to rent.
In case you’re still undecided, here is The Way, Way Back trailer:
The Way, Way Back is 103 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brig drug material. Now playing in limited release.