Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney
When I first saw the trailer for this movie it looked like it would be a mash-up of films that have come before: Little Miss Sunshine, Almost Famous, Adventureland. It didn't look extremely original, but I had hope that the classic coming-of-age story could be well done yet again as long as the actors held up their ends and the story didn't become amazingly cheesy. Thankfully, that's pretty much exactly what happened. The plot was fairly borrowed, but the characters added just enough new life to an old bit that the movie became loveable rather than laughable. The Way Way Back was a teen angst film that had all the qualities you'd look for but didn't overuse the cliche elements that could have brought it way way down.
Duncan is a boy in crisis. His parents have split up, leaving him with his emotionally scarred mother rather than his new-leaf father. Problem is, his mom, Pam, has got herself a new boyfriend, Trent, who is everything Duncan hates. He, Pam, Trent, and Trent's daughter Steph pack up the station wagon and head to the beach for the summer, to bond as a "family" and to start their new life. Duncan has trouble really opening up, that is until two things happen that will change him forever: meeting the girl-next-door Susanna and getting a job at the local water park. The manager of Water Wizz, Owen, becomes something more than a mentor to Duncan; a friend, an idol, a father figure. And when events spiral out of control at the beach house, Duncan escapes to his new-found life, an existence in which he is free to be himself and to begin to picture the man he will eventually become.
Not the most tremendously original plot, but it worked. The story was one that you could see coming; the empathetic cute girl who Duncan will fall for, the hero figure who teaches him to make his own path, the fragile mother who is just trying to get by. We've seen it before, but that didn't seem to matter. It was pulled off well enough to hide the fact that it was recycled and what we got was a classic story that felt comfortable & familiar. It was a short movie with a simple message, but it was delivered well & acted adequately. Sam Rockwell was definitely the high point, with a character that was loud, funny, confident, enviable, but had a side that was a little darker & more depressing. Steve Carell & Toni Collette were also very good as divorcees trying to make it work the second time around; a little desperate, a little pathetic, but believable. And Allison Janney was a nice comic relief, a drink-pusher who is having wild times in order to hide her pain. Again, not amazingly new, but done well enough.
The only actor I really didn't like was Duncan, played by Liam James. He was just too amateur, too high school. I could literally imagine myself playing the part exactly like that when I was sixteen. I was worried at first when I saw that he was going to be the weak point, but the directors of the film did something that was pretty ingenious. They turned him into more of a voyeur, an omniscient observer, and less of a piece of the plot. We got to see these peoples' messed up lives through his eyes as he was always privy to information, overhearing conversations, standing just outside the light. It was a clever way to make his character the storyteller & the catalyst, but not the lead of the film who would eventually make or break it. Had the pressure all been on him the movie would have failed. But it wasn't, it was on the more experienced actors, aided by a soundtrack & a pulse that pumped summer, growing up, and learning from mistakes. All in all a great movie, one that is enjoyable, refreshing, comforting, and well-made.