Coming-of-age films are almost as ubiquitous as rom-coms and Resident Evil sequels these days, and it’s not often that one of them manages to stand out in the crowded field. The ones that do succeed usually feature a combination of star power to get their foot in the door, a smart and funny script to keep the audience’s attention and a lead who embodies the joy, frustrations and awkwardness of teen life with equal spirit and veracity.
The Way, Way Back succeeds on pretty much all of those counts.
Duncan (Liam James) is heading to the East Coast for the summer with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and Trent’s teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). A summer spent at the beach should be any teen boy’s idea of awesome, but Duncan is shy and no fan of the overbearing Trent, so the next three months promise to be hell. But when he crosses paths with an immature and odd water park manager named Owen (Sam Rockwell), he dares to think that the summer may not be so bad after all.
Life at Trent’s summer house is one where the rules seem to only apply to Duncan. While the adults party all night and Steph steals beers to drink with friends, only Duncan seems to feel the effects of his soon-to-be stepfather’s casual cruelty. We first meet the two as Trent is asking Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to ten. The 14-year-old replies with a six, but Trent says no…, “You’re a three.”
With everyone distracted by the comedy and drama in their own lives, Duncan’s efforts to avoid the house result in him getting a job at Owen’s water park. His first task earns him the nickname “Pop ‘n’ Lock” and sets in motion the teen’s gradual escape from his own introverted shell.
Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also both have supporting roles) have crafted a script and a film that clearly comes from a place of experience for one or both of them. There are no grand but false gestures here so common in movies like this; instead, the story feels at home in the real world. The ingredients for something more expected are there, including a cute neighbor girl (AnnaSophia Robb) and an infidelity subplot among the adults, but the script never lets these things take over or move beyond minor distractions.
That’s not to say there aren’t minor elements that feel out of place, though, as Allison Janney‘s character, while hilarious, feels like part of a bigger, broader comedy. She seems to exist solely as a punchline machine. Janney is game for it and delivers some fantastically funny bits (often at the expense of her young, lazy-eyed son), but she plays several notes higher than the rest of the film. The remaining supporting players, including Collette, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph and Rob Corddry, maintain a much more grounded profile. Carrell does fine work with his most dramatic turn to date — a character who doesn’t get a single laugh. It’s too reductive to call him a bad guy, but Trent is definitely a challenge for both Pam and Duncan.
Rockwell and young James are the two main attractions here, as both give strong (albeit diametrically opposed) performances. Owen is a goof, and Rockwell has an absolute ball as the sarcastic and extremely playful child trapped in a man’s body. James is a child, and he manages something that most “awkward teen leads” in movies rarely do: he’s convincingly shy and out of place. This isn’t someone who can suddenly be made cool by removing glasses or changing clothes. He physically carries himself as a tightly wound ball of insecurity and anger silently agitated by circumstance. His fists are often coiled at his sides, his neck is taut and strained and his eyes constantly avert from discomfort, but as the character relaxes so does James’s physical performance.
The Way, Way Back is a funny and wonderfully-told tale about the beginning of one teen’s autonomy at a time where everything remains out of his control. It’s a familiar feeling treated honestly that just about anyone will relate to. The film’s balance between comedy and drama leans closer to the former, but the serious issues are never given short shrift. Not all problems can be solved over one crazy summer, and the script is smart (and unusual) enough to know that a character’s journey doesn’t always have to end at the end. Sometimes getting them to the starting line of life is story and accomplishment enough.
The Upside: Funny and warm; Sam Rockwell kills it with comedy and drama; lead is a believably awkward and nerdy teen; Steve Carrell does straight drama well; knows it doesn’t have to resolve every issue
The Downside: Drama may not be heavy enough; Betty (Janney) is a funny character but feels a bit over the top
On the Side: Apparently Jake Gyllenhaal was considered for the role that ended up going to Sam Rockwell