Movie Review: The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back is a wonderful movie about a kid finding his confidence. I really hate the phrase “coming-of-age story” – it’s such a generic term that’s applied to countless movies about teens, but there’s really no other way to define this movie.

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The film centres around the painfully shy and awkward Duncan (Liam James), who is forced to go on summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing and bullying boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and her boyfriend’s daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the Water Wizz water park, who finally gets Duncan to come out of his shell.

Jim Rash (Dean Pelton from Community) and Nat Faxon (from the short-lived Ben and Kate) have written and directed a slightly-formulaic but loveable film. These guys really know what they’re doing, having recently won Oscars for their work on The DescendantsThe Way Way Back is so endearing, and feels incredibly nostalgic and current at the same time.

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It starts like any story about a family on summer vacation – a station wagon filled to the brim with people and groceries, everyone in plaid, shorts and bathing suits –  it seems as if this is a film set in the 1980’s… until Duncan  pulls out his iPod earbuds. It’s a nod back to teen stories from the 70’s and 80’s – it’s simple, hilarious and real.

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Duncan  is so adorably awkward. When the film starts out, it’s uncomfortable to watch his interactions with others. So shy, always saying the wrong thing, and an absolutely miserable pushover. Liam James plays out his transformation so well – you can’t help but smile at the first genuine smile that we see from his character.

Duncan’s mom Pam , played with a quiet resignation by the wonderfully talented Toni Collette, could have been a throw away character, but Collette is just so good – you feel for her, she’s caught her 14-year old son and her boyfriend. Let’s talk about this “boyfriend”. As Trent, Steve Carell plays a character completely opposite to his well-known loveable goof shtick. He’s a douche. There’s no nice what to say it. Trent is an aggressive bully, but has the right amount of greasy charm to make Pam cave in to his requests. I loved this dynamic – he’s such a loathsome character played by such a nice guy.

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AnnaSophia Robb plays Suzanna, the classic beautiful girl-next-door, who’s a little older, and a lot out of  Duncan’s league. Her mother and brother are the most fun characters in the film. Alison Janney plays a drunken, loud, hilarious and offensive single-mom Betty; and River Alexander plays Peter, the Star Wars loving, lazy-eyed, 9-year old acts a lot older than his years.  We also meet Kip and Joan (Robb Corddry and Amanda Peet), Trent’s obnoxious friends who bring their own set of drama to the mix.

Duncan’s home life is depressing. It’s weighted with the simmering tension of teenage angst. He doesn’t fit in, feels as if his mom has left him alone, and manages to embarrass himself in front of the beautiful Suzanna. His solace comes in the form of the weird and charming staff at the Water Wizz water park. Sam Rockwell leads this team of weirdos including Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Everyone has been to this dingy water park. It feels so familiar, and reminded me so much of my early summer jobs – where camaraderie with your co-workers was the only thing that made up for such a crappy job. The water park staff is excellent , so fun and relaxed. You totally understand why Duncan likes it there so much. It’s the first place he truly fits in, thanks in no small part to Owen, the park manager.

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I’m going to take a minute to just prattle about Sam Rockwell. He’s so unbelievably talented and severely underappreciated in Hollywood. He’s played such diverse characters, always surprises me, and is always a scene stealer. Also, I think it should be mandatory for Sam Rockwell to dance in every single movie he’s in. ALL OF THEM! Those moves…they weaken my knees.  The Way Way Back definitely solidified that crush on Sam Rockwell.  As Owen, the “perpetual teenager”, Rockwell is funny, charming and understanding. He’s exactly the type of friend that Duncan needs.

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Compared to the claustrophobia of the family cottage, the water park is a breath of fresh air. You want to escape to it just as much as Duncan does.  The Way Way Back is a smart, tender and hilarious film that deals with family, love, divorce, loneliness, self-esteem, adultery and friendship – but never descends into “afterschool-special” territory. The film itself feels fresh and reminiscent. We’ve all been there. I can’t believe that it took me almost an entire summer to see a movie about the summer.

Take me back…. way way back. I’d love to see it again.

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