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THE WAY, WAY BACK (review)

By Caitlyn Thompson
Produced by Tom Rice, Kevin J. Walsh
Written and Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, 
AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, 
Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Liam James

Fox Searchlight Pictures / Rated PG-13

With a powerhouse cast and a charming fast-paced script of intelligence and wit, The Way, Way Back terrifically tells a timeless coming-of-age story that will almost bring you to tears and then make you burst out laughing.

We experience the movie from the perspective of quiet and awkward fourteen-year-old, Duncan (Liam James). His experience is defined by his relationships with the two men that vie to play the role of his surrogate father: her mom’s asshole boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) and the cool water park boss, Owen (Sam Rockwell).

In the first moments of The Way, Way Back, we watch Trent have Duncan rate himself on a scale from 1-10.  Reluctantly, the introverted teen declares himself a 6, which Trent dismisses, calling Duncan a 3.

Steve Carell, who built his career playing the hapless, sex-starved and awkward everyman in such films as 40 Year Old Virgin, Date Night and Crazy, Stupid Love, plays the polar opposite in The Way, Way Back.  Trent is the arrogant and charismatic foil to Duncan’s insecurities and frustrations, never missing an opportunity to instill his role as the alpha male in this familial dynamic.  Duncan, genuinely wishing for his mother’s happiness, is constantly belittled by Trent who incessantly calls him “buddy” and takes every opportunity to ensure that he never feels good about himself.

Duncan escapes the overbearing Trent on a spectacularly pink girl’s bicycle. And finds his way to the local water park, Water Wizz, where he is befriended by the park manager, the negligent, immature Owen (Sam Rockwell).  Perhaps recognizing a bit of himself in Duncan, Owen gives him a job, and more importantly, an opportunity to help break out of his shell.   Duncan keeps the job a secret, and for the first time, starts seeing himself the way the older employees of the park do; as a great kid who just needs a little help.  At Water Wizz, Duncan takes every moment as an opportunity, gaining an alias, Pop n’ Lock.  As a result, Owen gives Duncan the ability to see himself as more than just a number and, Duncan inadvertently helps Owen mature from an irreverent man-child to a responsible(ish) adult.

Faxon and Rash present emotional themes that are accessible to a vast array of audiences because they set the story in such a timeless New England summer town. It’s not a period film like Wet Hot American Summer or Adventureland. The houses are a bit cramped and shabby, the water park looks a little unstable, but everyone has cell phones and pretty standard summer gear. Because of the lack of time-period specificity, the directors are able to create a timeless movie that is at once contemporary and nostalgic.

That poignancy is expressed through the actions and reactions of the characters. They aren’t overly exaggerated, and instead feel true to life. The teenagers of The Way, Way Back do not whine about their grievances. They subtly capture the uncertainty and strife of being in that awkward phase where you are neither a child and not yet an independent adult, especially when you are growing up in households broken apart by divorce. They see their parents making moral sacrifices, such as Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Colette) who tries to ignore Trent’s boorishness because she does not want to be alone and raise her son without a father figure.

The contrasting characters compliment the oscillating tone of the film. It changes from bright and enthusiastic, even romantically hopeful, to dark and heart wrenching, then back to funny again. Isn’t that so like teen life? Happy and free one moment and then ridiculed and robbed of independence the next?

The directors are incredibly successful in balancing these moods throughout the film. Ultimately, The Way, Way Back is a critique of our culture’s obsession with youth. The summer beach town is “spring break for adults,” where the parents shed their inhibitions and flirt with drinking, drugs and each other. They forget about their adult responsibilities, including their children, and instead indulge in hedonistic excess.

Jim Rash and Nat Faxon know how to animate teen angst with integrity and hilarity. They expertly highlight the strengths and weaknesses of emotional transitional periods in a flawless comedic way.

Go enjoy The Way, Way Back. It’s my favorite movie of the summer so far.

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