The Way Way Back Review
Laughs and tears as an American teenager comes of age whilst working at a water park
The posters and trailers for The Way Way Back are keen to stress that it’s the new comedy from the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. In actual fact, it really has no connection with either of those movies and the film that it most resembles isAdventureland. Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical follow-up toSuperbad centred on a young man on the cusp of adulthood who spends a summer working at a theme park. The Way Way Back covers similar territory, with a teenager learning about life whilst working at a water park, although the protagonist is slightly younger than inAdventureland.
The Way Way Back was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who previously wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne, for which they all won Oscars. The film is semi-autobiographical and, as originally written, was set in 1984 in much the same way that, for the same reasons, Greg Mottola set Adventureland in 1987. Unfortunately due to budgetary constraints, Faxon and Rash were ultimately forced to set their story in the present day, although there are numerous references to 1984 - both verbal and musical. The script was also originally titled 'The Way Back' but the second ‘way’ was added to avoid confusion with the Peter Weir movie The Way Back.
The Way Way Back centres on a shy 14-year old called Duncan (Liam James) who goes on a summer vacation with his mother Pam(Toni Collette), his mother’s overbearing new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan has a rough time fitting in but finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the Water Wizz water park. Along the way he also forms a relationship with Suzanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a connection based on the shared absence of their respective fathers.
The film’s genesis stems from a conversation that writer/director Jim Rash had with his own step-father at the age of 14 and that conversation actually opens the film. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Liam James carrying the film well as the awkward and introverted Duncan. Steve Carell is cast against type as the overbearing and decidedly untrustworthy Trent, whilst Toni Collette is her usual superb self as a mother trying to make a life for herself whilst also taking care of her son. AnnaSophia Robb has blossomed into a fine young actress, whilst Allison Janney is a hoot as her drunken and rather trashy mother.
However the film really belongs to Sam Rockwell and he steals every scene he’s in.
However the film really belongs to Sam Rockwell and he steals every scene he’s in, bringing his own brand of likability to his character and a wonderful sense of comic timing. Rockwell has always been great but he’s perfectly suited to the charming, if rather childish Owen. The role of Caitlin, the assistant manager at the park was originally much smaller and intended for a younger actress but when Maya Rudolph was cast the role expanded and the actress created a meaningful relationship between her character and Owen. The other important set of adults in the film are a married couple played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, with the latter in particular causing trouble for some of the others.
Whilst Rockwell is a high point, the entire film is delightful, managing to be both funny and moving in equal measures. There is real chemistry amongst the entire cast but especially between Rockwell and James. Theirs is a genuine connection based upon mutual understanding and as Owen helps Duncan out of his shell, so he does some growing up of his own. The relationship between Duncan and his mother is also handled extremely well, allowing Collette some decent scenes to get her teeth into. Whilst the developing friendship between Duncan and Suzanna is handled with great skill and sensitivity, allowing the two young actors a chance to shine.
There is a genuine sense of truth to the writing, which makes the characters seem very real and this veracity is helped by the excellent cast, all of whom make their characters rounded individuals rather than archetypes. The direction by first timers Faxon and Rash, who also play characters in the film, is unshowy and carefully thought out but it suits the action. They sensibly give their characters room to breathe and never force the jokes or emotional beats, treating the audience with a degree of intelligence that is increasingly rare these days. The entire film feels organic and as a result you really care about the charcters and what they go through. Although it's worth pointing out that despite some dramatic scenes during the course of the story, the film is also very funny and has some genuinely laugh out loud moments.
The Way Way Back doesn't really break any new ground and, as pointed out at the beginning, it even covers much of the same turf as Adventureland. However it succeeds admirably thanks to a pitch perfect script, sensitive direction and a superb ensemble cast. In a summer dominated by men made of various metals or alloys and giant robots, it’s a pleasure to watch a film that addresses the kinds of issues we all face and makes us laugh and occasionally cry at the same time. The Way Way Back is a great movie and should be way, way at the top of your list of films to see.
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