The Way Way Back is a comedy-drama from the same team that gave us Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, so of course it’s an indie flick about coming of age and dysfunctional families. But there is something innately fresh and special about this one that makes for an extremely good viewing.
The film stars newcomer Liam James as painfully (and I do mean painfully) awkward fourteen year old Duncan, who accompanies his divorced mother Pam (an emotional Toni Collette) to the coast for the summer. They are joined by his mother’s awful boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his own daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Clearly Duncan is not comfortable in his own skin, and is not helped by Trent’s constant demoralization of him and Steph’s inconsiderate shallowness. His own mother’s ignorance and emotional instability is aptly conveyed by Collette, who is reminiscent of her character in Little Miss Sunshine. Steve Carrell is dynamically different as the overbearingly cold and abhorrent Trent, something we’re not used to seeing; but it is an excellently credible portrayal.
The setting is a typical American beachfront town that is booming over the Summer break with families there for the holiday. With bright colours, retro cars and bikes, and an old school water park, you may almost mistake it for a blast from the past. Undeniably the setting is a sea change from the norm and literally feels like a breath of fresh air to viewers.
At the beach house and water park we meet a myriad of characters who all add something interesting to the film, whether big or small. Allison Janney is crudely hilarious as their alcoholic neighbour Betty, and AnnaSophia Robb of Carrie Diaries fame is her disgruntled teenage daughter (slash, love interest for Duncan). Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry are decent supporting characters as Trent’s friends who add to the tension. Sam Rockwell plays a sarcastic Owen, the manager of the water park who catches Duncan’s eye and slowly pulls him into the real world. The directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash play quirky characters Kip and Lewis as employees of the water park and Maya Rudolph is an excellent addition as feisty Caitlyn, who keeps Owen grounded.
However the truly stand-out performances come from James and Rockwell. Rockwell as Duncan’s life-affirming mentor Owen is a stellar performance. James as the overly awkward and miserable Duncan is heart warming when he finally breaks out of his shell. This is one of those on-screen relationships that just click. James and Rockwell are warmly genuine in their encounters as Owen works to break down Duncan’s barriers. Rockwell is witty, fast paced and fun, but can be downright serious and adult when necessary. A scene at the top of the landslide in the morning is particularly stirring, as James works his emotional magic in a climatic outburst.
The soundtrack definitely carries an indie beach vibe: relaxing, upbeat, and an excellent presence in the film. With tunes from relatively unknown bands and artists such as Army Navy and Edie Brickell, it is well worth purchasing.
The entire film is littered with fantastic scenes, all particularly evocative, uplifting or just plain fun. It is a truly feel good film, a veraciously human film. The dialogue is clever and filled with hilarious one liners and witty jokes. The dry sarcasm that runs through the film is best exemplified by Duncan’s noncommittal answers or complete ignorance and humility. It manages to balance hilarity with emotional vulnerability and does it well with such a large ensemble cast. A positively enjoyable viewing, the only issue is that it is short, but sweet.
As Owen says to Duncan, ‘You need to go your own way’.