Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

The Way, Way Back (2013)
103 minutes
Directed by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell


Grade: B+

You can expect a coming of age, indie dramedy to be released almost every summer from Fox Searchlight Pictures, and The Way, Way Back continues its impressive list of films with well-developed characters and a story many of us can relate to.

Duncan (James) is a 14-year-old awkward teenager who has a complex family situation. His mom Pam (Collette) is dating Trent (Carrell), who is a single dad of a teenage daughter. It’s the summer and they’re staying at Trent’s beach house, though it’s obvious that Duncan doesn’t want to be there. Maybe that’s because Trent is giving Duncan a hard time and pushing him to break out of his close-off shell by telling him that he’s a 3 out of 10 (after Duncan rates himself a 6), and that he can do better.

The summer at the beach opens up a lot of opportunities for the family, but even more for the adults. Next door is the family of Betty (Janney), her teenage daughter Susanna (Robb) and Betty’s son Neil (Adam Riegler). At first they come across as potential trouble for Trent and Pam, but they’re the ones that end up meaning the most. Especially because Duncan takes an interest in Susanna, but don’t roll your eyes at a potential teenage summer break romance. It’s not that kind of movie.

To escape from the summer of hell, Duncan rides up to Water Wizz, where he becomes friends with an unlikely manager, Owen (Rockwell). Owen’s outrageous and unfiltered personality compliments Duncan’s shy, gawkiness well enough to the point where it’s the only time during the summer he feels like he fits in and is truly happy. The plot thickens between Duncan’s family that involves a flawed Trent and a scared Pam. These are events that feel real and everyone’s actions ring true to what would happen if this were your family. It’s another aspect to why this is more than just a regular coming-of-age tale.

At the heart of the film is Sam Rockwell’s performance as Owen. He steals every scene he’s in and provides the laughs and respect needed to fulfill his purpose as Duncan’s guide. Rockwell is a colorful character, but never over-the-top. He treats Owen with a lot of care as an adult who hasn’t entirely matured enough to win over the woman he loves, but aware enough to direct the troubled Duncan in the right direction.

In addition, Toni Collette and Steve Carell give very convincing performances as the couple trying to mold their separate families together. It’s not an easy task, but the children wasn’t the main obstacle this time around. Carell doesn’t exactly play a villain, but instead a man with strong opinions trying to force them on his family, even if they don’t want to listen. And Collette is torn between what is right for herself and what is right for Duncan.

The Way, Way Back is the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who wrote The Descendants). While their television gigs rely on quirky comedy, they certainly have an understanding of the human condition and the relationships of family in difficult situations. I’m not sure how much of their work is autobiographical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a good part of their stories were. I’m looking forward to whatever their next project will be.


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