Review: The Way Way Back
PLOT: A timid teenager forced to go to his mother's boyfriend's beach house for the summer finds friendship with a sardonic water park manager.
REVIEW: THE WAY WAY BACK treads familiar territory, but well. We've seen plenty of coming-of-age tales of this sort before; we know the rhythm, we can predict the outcome. But the film (which is the debut of THE DESCENDANTS screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), wise to the fact that it's not breaking new ground, knows that the key to elevating the material above the familiar is in the casting, which is exceptional.
Imagine being asked what "number" you think you are, on a scale of 1 to 10. Now imagine, regardless of your answer, being told that you're actually a 3. Just a measly 3. That's how THE WAY WAY BACK introduces us to Duncan (Liam James), the "3" in question. Duncan is an introverted teenager, who doesn't necessarily seem very exceptional, but a 3? Harsh. Consider it a blunt motivational tactic on the part of Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend of Duncan's mother (Toni Collette) and the kind of "tough love" prick that would be the bane of any teenager's existence. Trent's point is that Duncan earns his 3 because he needs to explore the world instead of wasting away in his mother's apartment, content to do not much at all. The funny thing is, Trent is right. He's just a prick about it.
Duncan's not likely to find Trent's words very helpful at first, but he'll soon find that getting out of the house - in this case, Trent's summer home - is just what he'll need to remain sane for the summer. His mother is a good woman who maybe too desperately tries to fill an inner emptiness with a new man, but she doesn't act like the mother he knows when she's around Trent and his party-all-the-time friends (Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet). Trent's neighbor is a drunken busybody (a fantastic Allison Janney); Trent's stepdaughter (Zoe Levin) can't stand him, and the only person Duncan might want to actually talk to, his neighbor's daughter (Annasophia Robb), simply seems too cool for him.
So Duncan finds escape in the form of a shoddy waterpark overseen by Owen (Sam Rockwell), a teenager in an adult's body with a sarcastic answer for everything. Owen sees in Duncan a young man crying out for friendship, for something to do, and takes him under his wing, inserting him into the park's nonplussed staff (including Maya Rudolph and Rash and Faxon). There, he's finally able to shake off his inhibitions (a little), find the courage to talk to the girl next door, and stand up to his potential-stepfather, who turns out to be a bit more of a louse than we suspected.
Right from the start, we can guess how the various subplots will wrap up. THE WAY WAY BACK isn't one to divert too much from formula, but since these are characters we recognize and can empathize with, we're in for the ride. There's also a simple sweetness to the atmosphere that is refreshing; cynicism or overbearing irony aren't present, and honestly that's pretty refreshing in this day and age, where every other movie appears to be winking at the audience.
There's no question that THE WAY WAY BACK's best attribute is its pitch-perfect cast, from Carell playing against type as a controlling hypocrite to Collette as the loving but wounded mother. Rockwell, as usual, can be counted on to steal the show; Owen is practically tailor-made for the actor's sly delivery. Owen is the cool guy every loser teen wishes would accept him, and the affectionate bromance between Owen and Duncan is among the movie's nicer touches. Allison Janney also creates a handful of frankly amazing moments with her babbling monologues.
The film wouldn't work at all if it weren't for a fittingly awkward Duncan, and Liam James is just the right mixture of oddball and wallflower to make the character worth rooting for. As the object of his affection, Annasophia Robb is thoroughly crush-worthy, and the actress offers some bright, savvy character moments that indicate she has serious "next big thing" potential. (She's currently slumming it on the CW's "The Carrie Diaries"; hopefully that doesn't hold her back.)
Just a final note: While THE WAY WAY BACK is a pleasant and perfectly acceptable time at the movies, a much more fulfilling and unique coming-of-age summer movie is currently playing, and it's THE KINGS OF SUMMER.
|Extra Tidbit:||THE WAY WAY BACK opens on July 5th.|