The Way, Way Back is being billed as an original film from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers behind The Descendants. While the film isn’t based off any preexisting material, I’m not sure it qualifies as original. It has a bit of Adventureland here, some Little Miss Sunshine there, and some drops of Revenge of the Nerds and Bill Murray films thrown in for good measure. Luckily, The Way, Way Back is more than a checklist of throwbacks to 80s summer comedies. And it gets its hero, Duncan, very right.
Played by Liam James (fans of The Killing will recognize James as Mireille Enos’ son on that show), Duncan is an awkward, uncomfortable, shy 14-year-old boy. His mom still treats him as a kid, and he has yet to acquire the rebellious aggressiveness of a teen. He’s stuck inside his own skin and circumstances, and he seems like he’d escape both if he had the chance.
We meet Duncan in the back seat of his mom’s boyfriend, Trent’s (Steve Carrell), station wagon, being carted off against his will to spend the summer at Trent’s beach house. While his girlfriend and daughter sleep, Trent asks Duncan what he’d rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Duncan says a 6, but Trent says he’s a 3. Trent also sets it up that if Duncan is able to raise his score over the summer it will essentially be thanks to Trent’s masculine influence.
This early exchange gives us a lot of information about Duncan and what type of film this will be. It shows that Trent cares little for Duncan and is only interested in how Duncan’s interests play into his own. It also shows that Duncan doesn’t think that much of himself. Not many teens would rate themselves a 6 out of 10. This shows just how authentic Duncan is as a character. Often in films of this type the outsider protagonist seems superficially awkward, and is usually played by a young heartthrob merely dressing himself down to achieve loserdom. Even in last year’s superior The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Logan Lerman was hardly believable as an outsider. If Lerman had attended my high school he’d have been student council president. In this film I can believe Liam James as a so-called loser.
If Duncan cannot escape his circumstances the film promises that at least he’ll be able to escape some of his own self-hatred. If Duncan can acquire a little confidence, his stressful life will be a bit more bearable. And the way he gains this confidence is through Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the local water park. Duncan gets a part-time job at Water Wizz as a way to escape Trent’s beach house, and there he meets this other surrogate father who is at odds with the insensitive Trent.
Sam Rockwell plays Owen as a Bill Murray stand-up comedian type. He rattles off witty snark as easily as he breathes, and he seems to have a carefree existence that Duncan is completely jealous of. Rockwell’s Owen isn’t just marvelously entertaining. He’s one of the best mentors I’ve seen in films of this type. He sells the complex idea that a man with a messy life can use the very humour and confidence he uses to dodge his own responsibilities to bolster the confidence of an unhappy boy.
There’s comfort in the familiar parts The Way, Way Back is assembled from. It’s not as carefully observed or authentic as the best of its genre. But there’s authenticity in its awkward protagonist and his mentor. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash may not be the most skillful storytellers yet, but they’re clearly mining from a wellspring of authentic feeling regarding youthful awkwardness.
The Way, Way Back is not the best of this year’s many coming of age stories, but it’s far better than the worst of the lot. It’s funny, pleasant, and occasionally insightful. It has more feeling and warmth than most crowd-pleasers of its type.
7 out of 10
The Way, Way Back (2013, USA)
Written and directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash; starring Liam James, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and Sam Rockwell.