Sundance 2013: “The Way, Way Back” – Review by MovieManMenzel

A heartfelt, funny, and original coming of age tale with an amazing cast and some awesome 80s music.

The Way, Way Back is a coming of age story written and directed by Nat Faxon (Ben & Kate) and Jim Rash (Dean from Community). It tells the story of Duncan (Liam James) who is having a a hard time adjusting to the recent divorce of his mother and father. Attempting to move on from her failed marriage, Pam (Toni Collette) begins to date Trent (Steve Carell) who acts one way in front of Pam and another way in front of Duncan. The three head off to Trent’s beach house for summer vacation with the great hope of bonding and having a memorable summer. During this vacation, Duncan begins to step outside his comfort zone by getting a job at Water Wizz, the local water park. It is at Water Wizz where Duncan learns just how great of a person he is thanks to his new friend and mentor Owen (Sam Rockwell).

There have been hundreds of coming of age films that have been made over the years, but there is just something about The Way, Way Back that feels fresh and original. It’s a story that feels real which was interesting to learn at the post screening Q&A that the reason why it felt that way is because it was based on the life of the director Jim Rash. Jim and Nat adapted this real life story into a film that is extremely funny but also sincerely heartfelt at times. It is honestly one of those films that perfectly mixes comedy and drama so that the audience really connects with and feels for the characters.

The film opens up with a conversation between Trent and Duncan that pretty much sets the stage for the entire film. In this scene, Trent and Duncan are talking and Trent asks Duncan where he sees himself on a scale from 1 to 10? Trent repeatedly tells Duncan that he thinks he is a 3 and that he needs to really develop himself into a much more outgoing and likable person. This scene immediately makes the audience hate Trent and feel bad for Duncan. It also oddly enough suggests what exactly is going to happen as the film goes on.

Another reason why this film works so well besides the excellent script is simply the characters themselves. The lead actor Liam James (Duncan) is really great as an awkward teenager. He is only trying to adjust to life and growing up which for many of us we can relate to. Duncan is likable but also the underdog so as a viewer you naturally want to root for him to find his way and grow. Steve Carell plays a really huge asshole in the film and that’s quite a feat for him since he is really such a nice guy in person. He definitely makes Trent into this unlikable character that we as audience members always hate right from the get go. Alongside these two, you have an amazing comedic performance by Sam Rockwell, who as Owen owns Water Wizz and serves as Duncan’s mentor. Rockwell delivers most of the best lines in the film including a hilarious scene where he quotes the Bonnie Tyler song “Holding out for a Hero.”

There are several other familiar faces including Toni Collete, Amanda Peet, Alison, Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Rob Coddry, Maya Ruldolph all of which play key roles in the film and bring their A game. Out of all these actors, I really found Alison Janney and AnnaSophia Robb to be the standouts. Janney plays a hilarious over the top mother character with a drinking problem and a son who has something wrong with his eye. AnnaSophia Robb plays Duncan’s love interest who does a great job offsetting the awkwardness of Duncan as a character.

In many ways, The Way Way Back reminded me of the PG-13 version of Adventureland because it really showcased the importance of friendships, standing up for yourself, growing up, and of course, the events of a single summer. The film even holds the similar setting with the water park being a backdrop for most of the film. The difference though is really just about the character struggles and what they are dealing with. The film dives into territories such as divorce as well as being blinded by just wanting to feel loved. There is a powerful scene where Duncan just loses it during dinner. He begins to stick up for himself and also his mother and tells her to do something about Trent and that he is really just an asshole who has no appreciation for her. This scene is really emotionally powerful because it feels real and you know that the kid is 100% right even though Pam is too blinded by the idea of being alone to realize it.

The music choices really set the tone of the film as well. The soundtrack feels as if it is a throwback to those classic coming of movies that came out in the 1980s and went on to become cult classics. The use of Bonnie Tyler, REO Speedwagon, as well as a host of others really made certain scenes pop and memorable. It also has to be said that the use of a water park in the film was very effective. I don’t think there is a better place than a water park to tell a coming of age story especially with an 80s feel like this film had. I simply adored almost every scene at the water park especially the dance scene as well as the whole “urban legend” thing about two kids passing each other inside of the water slide.

In conclusion, The Way, Way Back is really a great coming of age story as well as a great film all around. It is definitely a breathe of fresh air to see at Sundance after a bunch of disturbing and depressing films about life and sexual exploits. It was refreshing to wake up one morning and see a film that wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking but instead well written, heartfelt, and hilarious. The Way Way Back will definitely be a huge hit once it hits theaters since Fox Searchlight picked it up and if you are a fan of Steve Carell, this is a must see because you get to see him play a new character that you never thought you would see him play.


MovieManMenzel’s final rating for The Way Way Back is a 8 out of 10.

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