Review: 'The Way Way Back'

‘The Way Way Back’ is a funny, sweet, and ultimately very rewarding film from the creative team behind ‘The Descendants.’

Loaded with fine performances by a terrific ensemble cast, ‘The Way Way Back’ will transport you back to adolescence in a way that is rarely accomplished.

Duncan (Liam James) is traveling with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) to spend the summer at Trent’s beach house as the film opens.

Duncan has been relegated to the very back of Trent’s restored Buick station wagon as they travel, where many families might put the family dog. We quickly get an intimate glimpse into Duncan’s relationship with his mother’s boyfriend as Trent asks Duncan to assess himself.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?” Trent asks Duncan in the opening scenes. The audience knows that the question is a setup, and we feel sorry for the awkwardly adolescent Duncan as he tries to communicate with his unwanted new father figure.

Steve Carell is cast marvelously against type as the domineering and oily car salesman Trent. His lack of parenting skills with his own daughter are obvious, even while trying to be “Super Dad” towards Duncan to impress his mother Pam.

Duncan is an introvert. Shy, uncomfortable in his own skin, and generally just miserable at the situation that he’s in.

After some awkward moments spent with his mother and Trent, Duncan ultimately decides to wander out into the local town. At the local pizzeria he meets Owen, played by Sam Rockwell.

Owen is a hedonistic, funny, charming fresh breath of air to Duncan’s world. Owen doesn’t play by the rules and in fact, doesn’t seem to care much for structure at all. When Duncan encounters Owen again, it’s at Water Wizz, the local theme park where Owen is the manager.

Owen decides to mentor the lonely, socially inept Duncan and break the kid loose from his own awkward imprisonment. Once Rockwell takes Duncan under his wing, ‘The Way Way Back’ really finds its stride.

To call this a “coming of age” film or, God forbid…a “dramedy” would be to do ‘The Way Way Back’ a great injustice. This film sweetly and intelligently recounts Duncan’s self discovery along with the painful realization that adults are flawed and imperfect people.

While the performances by Carell and Collette are very good, ‘The Way Way Back’ belongs to Sam Rockwell. AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna, Duncan’s summer crush, as well as supporting roles from a boozy Allison Janney, Robb Corddry, and Amanda Peet are realistic and colorful. Rockwell, however steals the show in a role that seemed to be written for him.

Rockwell’s Owen serves as a catalyst for Duncan’s emergence into a young man. Owen encourages Duncan to live life, to have fun, but also to be himself. There isn’t one preachy or cliché scene between Owen and Duncan in the film. ‘The Way Way Back’ plays out the unique relationship in a way that develops naturally and organically.

Much credit is due to the writing and directing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The duo previously collaborated on the screenplay for the George Clooney film ‘The Descendants.’ Both Faxon and Rash appear as Water Wizz employees Roddy and Lewis, respectively, in ‘The Way Way Back.’

Faxon and Rash have delivered a film that is out of time, anachronistic in the way that great human stories can be. When and where ‘The Way Way Back’ takes place is ancillary to the story of Duncan as his journey. The undetermined time frame serves the movie well, allowing us to fill in the blanks from our own memories and experiences.

From the opening shots of Trent’s Buick, it’s not obvious in what year the story takes place in until Duncan pops in his ear buds. The Water Wizz theme park itself is gleefully acknowledged as a throwback to a different era.

This film is an insightful, sometimes painfully funny, but ultimately deeply gratifying trip back in time to that awkward fumbling adolescent that each of us once was.

‘The Way Way Back’ is a welcome departure from the noise and explosive action that has clogged theaters this summer. This is a well-developed, perfectly cast, insightful and entertaining picture that will leave you feeling rewarded and uplifted.

Click here for the trailer for ‘The Way Way Back’ from Fox Searchlight.

Watch for ‘The Way Way Back’ to be brought to the conversation as the movie “award season” starts to make news this fall and winter. Sam Rockwell, we’re talking to you, sir.

Flixnerd Rating: 4 / 5 Stars. Go see this movie!

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