For the follow-up to their masterful 2011 drama “The Descendants,” Oscar-winning co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash also assume the roles of co-directors in this beach and vacation coming-of-age comedy that rivals “American Graffiti” in scope, intelligence, knowing humor and emotional depth. Teetering between Disney channel hokum and precious art-house twee during its opening scenes, “The Way, Way Back” quickly regains its footing and strides confidently towards a riveting and richly-rewarding conclusion.
Surrounded by a truly dream supporting cast, relative unknown Liam James stars as Duncan, a 14-year-old boy we meet at the peak of his awkward puberty phase. Pale, withdrawn, borderline anti-social with a major case of fumble mouth, Duncan is still reeling from his parent’s divorce and is none too happy with his passive-aggressive mother Pam’s (Toni Collette) lout of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). It also doesn’t help that Duncan is forced to spend time with Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) who is almost as rude and unlikeable as her father.
As soon as the odd quartet arrives at Trent’s New York summer home, Duncan does everything he can to avoid contact with everyone—and for good reason. Trent’s neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) is a party-hardy type who dresses age-inappropriate, laughs at her own unfunny, cringe-inducing remarks and treats her own lazy-eyed son like a freak. Also good at bending their elbows are Trent’s married couple friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). Kip is semi-oblivious and mostly harmless but Joan—though not quite as obvious as Betty—can’t handle her liquor very well and is a frustrated man-eater.
Robb Plays the Ultimate Approachable Cool Girl
The one bright spot for Duncan arrives in form of Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Betty’s whip smart, super-cool daughter who takes an immediate dislike to Steph and gives Duncan every possible chance she can without being obvious; inviting him to spend time with her yet he is either too clueless or petrified to pick up on her drift.
Realizing there are only so many places he can hide in the house or near the beach, Duncan hops on Steph’s pink bicycle, heads inland and starts hanging out at a cheesy water park managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell). Not quite a slacker, Owen is still an underachiever in the deep throes of arrested development yet has loopy charm to burn and a deft ability to read people. He immediately recognizes that Duncan is in desperate need of unthreatening company and encouragement and drafts him as a park employee.
Rockwell Plays the Father Figure
Shortly becoming Duncan’s hipster big brother and quasi-father figure, Owen offers the teen advice without overtly doing so; he treats him like an adult and gently challenges him with breezy, unaffected humor. Owen starts loosening up, gets a tan, develops some degree of self-confidence and begins to break out of his thick, confining shell.
In much the same manner as “The Descendants,” Faxon and Rash (who assign themselves small roles as park employees) resist the temptation to go broad and rely completely on sharp and concise storytelling shorthand. There isn’t a single scene, glance or word of dialogue that doesn’t add something substantial to the narrative. The filmmakers also employ silence to great effect. It is often the pregnant pauses, what the characters don’t say or their non-verbal reactions that tell us what they’re thinking and who they are more than words ever could.
Forgive the Vague Title—Avoid the Misleading Trailer
It says a lot about a movie when the only thing you can find any fault with is its title. Many people might scoff and offer a “what’s in a name” argument but for a low-visibility, micro-budget production such as this, it makes a huge difference—especially in overblown, blockbuster-strewn mid-summer. It wouldn’t be an issue if the beyond-clunky title figured into the mix somehow but “the way, way back” never does. If this was a period piece, maybe. That might make some sense and could act as a memory or reflection tease but that’s not the case either.
Regarding the trailer: It’s not indicative of the bulk of the material and should be avoided if at all possible. Before asking, I know this is a big request. A great amount of movie fans base their viewing decisions on their opinion of trailers, but the one for this movie is a mess and deeply misrepresents the actual content.
With a sterling mix of heart, soul, intelligence, deft humor and stirring drama, this is one of the premiere coming-of-age films of this century and should not be missed.
“The Way, Way Back”
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Stars: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney
Running Time: One hour, 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: July 5, 2013
Rating: 5 out of 5