The Way Way Back familiar but fun
I have a feeling that if you were to press Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writers and directors of The Way Way Back, they’d freely admit that there’s nothing remotely original in their film. Yet another coming-of-age movie that hits all the familiar tropes, it focuses on an alienated teen who ultimately finds his way with the help of a benevolent mentor and a young woman who convinces him he’s not as big of a dweeb as he thinks he is. Yep, nothing new there and yet by the end of the movie you’re thankful for having spent time with its familiar characters thanks to a dynamic performance from a veteran actor and the sense of poignancy created by the filmmakers, which never feels forced.
Duncan (Liam James) is the awkward young man in question, who finds himself feeling lost and alone at the beginning of what he’s sure will be a hellish summer. He’s been forced to accompany his mother Pam (Toni Collette) to a vacation cottage with her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Bad enough, he’s been feeling neglected by his mom, who’s been devoting all of her energy to this new relationship but her beau happens to be a bully who goes out of his way to humiliate the young man at every turn. Left alone to fill his days, Duncan wanders down to the local water park where he stumbles into a job and makes the acquaintance of the owner of the establishment, Owen (Sam Rockwell). This is a fortuitous turn for him as is the friendship he strikes up with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a young beauty that lives next door who has more in common with Duncan than he first realizes.
That the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the far-better Adventureland is no accident. The water park is filled with its share of humorous oddballs who all contribute to shaping Duncan’s new outlook on life as well as bolstering his ego. Lewis (Rash), who has grand plans but knows he will never leave his dead-end job, is the personification of fear and low self-esteem, while Roddy (Faxon) exemplifies a laidback approach to life, finding fun in any situation that comes his way. But it’s Owen who has the biggest impact on Duncan, as he’s able to show him that he does have worth and shouldn’t let anyone tell him otherwise. Rockwell steals the show in this role, providing a constant stream of sarcasm, hyperbole and ironic humor that, in lesser hands would have been irritating and off-putting. However, the actor’s charm holds him in good stead. Owen comes off not as a self-absorbed blowhard but a man who uses humor as a way to ingratiate himself to others and win their trust, not belittle them. It’s a neat little performance and it helps elevate the film among others of its ilk.
Credit should be given to Carell for playing against his image, which he does convincingly, as well as Robb whose great potential is coming to fruition, while Collette delivers her usual solid performance. In the end, while Back is all too familiar, it’s the characters you remember and Faxon and Rash should be given credit for casting their film with such capable performers. They save the movie from being a just a rote exercise.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.