Growing Up in the “Way Back”

There are many genres of movies I adore, but one of my personal favorites is the coming-of-age story.  If not handled correctly however, they can go wrong in a heartbeat. In the hands of a competent writer and director team though, these stories can turn out great in a truly special way.  Last year, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was the film that got the coming-of-age tale correctly, and now this year is highlighted by “The Way, Way Back” as the film that gets the genre right in both a touching and hilarious manner.

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

Duncan (Liam James) has a tough time fitting in socially, which is why he dreads the summer vacation he has to take with his mother, her cavalier boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and Trent’s selfish teenage daughter.  While on one of his solo adventures, though, he runs into Owen (Sam Rockwell), a witty water park manager, who offers him a job at the park.  Through this experience, Duncan forms a unique friendship with Owen and the rest of the park’s staff, which eventually leads to him finding his place in the world — all during the best summer he’ll have in his life.

Based off that description, I know what you’re thinking — this is yet another formula that’s been done to death in cinema, and today  presents no fresh elements that elevate the genre it’s working with.  “The Way, Way Back,” on the other hand, is a huge exception to that claim.  While its themes may feel familiar, its witty charm and terrific performances from its ensemble make it a trip I would like to take again in the future.

As Duncan, Liam James is solid at conveying the socially awkward teen outcast role that his character embodies.  He gradually expresses more emotion as the film goes on, which made me connect to his character more, too. Steve Carrell also does a great job at playing against type as the jerky boyfriend of Duncan’s mom.  His character does things that definitely made me dislike him, but I also had to commend Carrell at the same time for playing the role so well.

As great as everyone else in the ensemble is, the true star of this film is Sam Rockwell.  Over the past five years, Rockwell has continued to surprise me with the diverse set of roles he’s played, and this one is no different.  He steals every scene he’s in with his witty charm, but it’s the endearing personality he expresses toward Duncan that really develops the core heart of the film.  If anything, this role proves that Rockwell has continuously worked hard enough to get an Oscar nomination, so my fingers are crossed yet again for that happening.

Jim Rash and Nat Faxon both won Oscars for co-writing “The Descendants” in 2011, and here they make their directorial debuts, in addition to writing.  Both are extremely talented writers, especially when you look up their comedy backgrounds, which clearly explain why the dialogue is so wittily engaging.  They also both have a great sense for three-dimensional characters, because each main character, regardless of their common personality traits, has a reason or two for why they act a certain way.

Overall while some of its moments are a bit familiar to the coming-of-age genre, “The Way, Way Back” is still an extremely entertaining and charming entry into the genre.  It may not be “deantastic” (I love you if you get that reference) like I hoped it would’ve been, but its still one of the better surprises of this mediocre summer movie season.


RECOMMENDED: Coming-of-age films are great if handled correctly, and this one certainly is.