The Way, Way Back Movie Review
Two of the three gentleman not named Alexander Payne behind the Oscar winning screenplay THE DESCENDANTS, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the Dean from Community), are now dabbling into the directing category with their first feature film in THE WAY, WAY BACK. The two also wrote the story, which has a similar tone as their previous endeavor by finding humor in life’s struggles. While they won’t be winning any awards this time around, THE WAY, WAY BACK is a delightfully charming film worth checking out.
Riding in a car with his mom (Toni Collete), her jerk boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s stuck up daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is on the worst summer trip of his life. Trent (even his name sounds like a jerk – I apologize to those named Trent) opens the film by not so subtly insulting poor Duncan by rating him a 3 out of 10. “I mean who does that?” As the outcast of the group, Duncan escapes the continual awkward, humiliating and demoralizing family situation at Trent’s summer home by finding unexpected acceptance in a secret life as an employee at the Water Wizz water slide park.
Every person and place is authentic to the town and the season. I feel the heat of the summer and looniness of the people making every aspect more reality based and believable. It’s a nice familiar place not only physically but also as a time in everyone’s life. The setting coupled with some amazing performances help sell the story. As the film began, I was unsure of young Liam James in the leading role but he comes around fitting the awkward, unsure protagonist perfectly. That goes equally for his female interest played by AnnaSophia Robb who seems almost attainable but always at arms length. Steve Carell plays a bit off type this time around by actually being the bad guy (I’m not counting his lovable super villain as Gru in DESPICABLE ME). Like most of his turns in dramatic territory in smaller films such as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, DAN IN REAL LIFE or CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, Steve Carell has mastered the subtle sympathetic loser. Switching gears effortlessly to an unlikable womanizer, Carell is able to maintain the subtleness, which makes his character more believable than the usual take on a villain role. Toni Collette as Duncan’s kind-hearted but insecure mother and Allison Janney as the wacky intrusive neighbor also turn in great performances.
While the family dynamics keep things grounded, the film really lifts to life through Sam Rockwell’s Owen. A big kid at heart, Owen is the manager of Water Wizz and takes nothing seriously. However, he notices Duncan’s wallflower persona and takes him under his wing hiring him as another employee to carry out some of the park’s dirtier work. Poor Duncan’s attempt to break up a dance party goes humorously different than one might expect. Rockwell’s Owen is the perfect yang to Steve Carell’s Trent’s yin. Rockwell owns the character and plays the film’s sometimes schmaltzy cheesefest that inevitably occurs with a touch of sarcasm that brings it all together. A line like “you’ve got to carve your own path” might be laying it on pretty thick but like Rockwell’s terrific performance, THE WAY, WAY BACK earns every moment.
THE WAY, WAY BACK is that wonderfully delightful film that successfully balances drama and humor. Perhaps a bit heavy handed in its messaging through characters and dialogue, the film wins the audience over with an abundance of charm and likability. By keeping things simple, the film is broadly relatable. While perhaps not all of us have divorced parents or have worked a summer at a water park, most people know what it’s like to feel alone as a teenager. Things don’t always clean up as nicely or are spelled out so perfectly as they do in THE WAY, WAY BACK but the overall tone creates a very effective coming of age film.