The Way, Way Back Review
by Daniel Rester
I’m kind of a sucker for coming-of-age films. Maybe that’s because of my own age, just exiting my teen years a couple of years ago. But I find that many of the better films in the genre are able to be heartfelt and authentic in a way that many other films can’t accomplish. Such great coming-of-age examples are The Breakfast Club (1985), Stand by Me (1986), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). Yes, the genre does have its share of stinkers, but the good ones that stick out really stick with you.
The Way, Way Back is the latest example of such a film with “sticking power,” for some people at least; WeLiveFilm’s Mike Holtz even gave it a score of “10 out of 10.” I personally didn’t find it as compelling as the hype led me to think I would, but it is still a strong film within the coming-of-age genre. And it reminded me, in ways, of why I love the genre so much.
Back comes from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, making their directorial debuts. But the duo isn’t new to the cinema game, as they previously won Oscars for co-writing The Descendants (2011) with Alexander Payne.
Faxon and Rash’s Back tells the story of Duncan (Liam James), a reserved 14-year-old boy. Duncan finds himself on a summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). The family is staying at Trent’s beach house for the summer, much to the dismay of Duncan, who hates Trent. However, Duncan finds some comfort from the girl who lives next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and the manager of a water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen even finds some work for Duncan to do during the summer in an attempt to bring the kid out of his shell.
From the very first frame, Faxon and Rash let the audience see and feel Duncan’s pain, with Trent telling him that he is a “three” on a one-to-ten scale. With the first stinging punches of emotion set and moving forward, the directors then move on to inject moments of warmth and humor into the film. Their balancing of the tone and mood from both writing and directing standpoints is impressive. Though their coming-of-age material is familiar with its setup and some of the side characters come across as unbelievable (almost caricatures), most of the main players and story elements are presented genuinely.
The excellent character development and top-notch cast doesn’t hurt things either. James is occasionally too wooden and/or mopey in a one-note way as Duncan, but he does have a few shining moments and makes Duncan worth rooting for on a whole. Collette and Robb are also appealing as the two main females in the film, while Carell proves his range as the slimy boyfriend. Even the smallest of characters have interesting attributes and are well played as well, with such actors as Allison Janney (funny but over-the-top here), Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet joining in; Faxon and Rash even have bit parts as two of the water park’s employees.
But possibly the best thing about Back is Rockwell, who steals scene after scene as Owen. The actor applies a boyish charm here while also nailing a few key dramatic moments. Rockwell really knows how to give his characters hearts of gold if he needs to, and his delivery of comedic lines is hilarious. Back just proves once again why he is one of the more underrated actors out there right now.
Faxon and Rash’s use of the fun waterpark location, a feel-good soundtrack, and some curious dialogue (some including facts about crabs, delivered by Robb) also adds to the flavor of the film. A lot of the final character decisions are pretty satisfying as well.
Walking away from Back, it will likely put a smile on your face. It’s a really good coming-of-age film, though maybe not a great one because of its familiar trappings. However, my viewing partner and I agreed that we both would have liked the film to keep going because we were enjoying the characters so much – which is never a bad sign.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).