The Way, Way Back Review
by Delon Villanueva
The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age comedy from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. You may recognize Faxon and Rash from television, as Faxon is the star of Fox’s short-lived sitcom, Ben and Kate, and Rash plays Dean Pelton on NBC’s cult comedy Community. Though in the movie industry, Faxon and Rash have won Oscars for co-writing the 2011 Best Picture nominee The Descendants. Their Academy Awards gave the screenwriting team the power to work on their own film and direct it themselves, which resulted in their passion project, The Way, Way Back. The film was met with much praise when it premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and was picked up by Fox Searchlight, a studio known for indie hits like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and, of course, The Descendants. A coming-of-age movie by Faxon and Rash feels right at home with this studio, but how does it compare to Fox Searchlight’s best films? Although it’s not trying to be an Oscar contender, The Way, Way Back is a heartwarming, well-written comedy that works great as an alternative choice during this crowded big-budget movie season.
The film’s protagonist is Duncan (Liam James), an awkward fourteen-year-old boy who must spend his summer with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), at a beach house owned by her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Unfortunately, Trent is quite the jerk to Duncan and can’t seem to give him a break. The multitude of adults and older teens that surround Duncan at this beach house only make him feel even more left out. Just when it seems like his whole summer has been ruined for good, Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a local water park called Water Wizz. To help get him out of his summer funk, Owen asks Duncan to join his crew at the water park. Desperate to get out of the house and away from the adults, Duncan says yes without a doubt in his mind. Though as the summer goes on, working at Water Wizz becomes more than just a job for Duncan, as with the help of Owen, his co-workers, and the park guests themselves, he finally begins to feel accepted in the world.
A coming-of-age-film may seem like a safe project to do for recent Oscar winners, but in The Way, Way Back, it’s done extremely well. Faxon and Rash continue to prove their award-worthy writing talents here, as the movie is full of unforgettable characters and sharp, hilarious dialogue — even between the kids that hang around the water park. Faxon and Rash also do a great job in directing their actors, making full use of their large ensemble. It’s always entertaining to see an actor to play against type, so it was interesting to watch Steve Carell play such a condescending and insensitive guy. Then there’s our leading man, Liam James, as Duncan. James is literally the perfect embodiment of every kid at fourteen, nailing it from the stammering to the posture. Though my favorite performance of the movie (a performance I’ll definitely remember by the end of the year) easily goes to Sam Rockwell as Owen, who almost steals the whole show. The lovable man-child character has been done to death, but Rockwell’s comedic timing is incredible and he handles the emotional depth with his goofy character appropriately. For the most part, Faxon and Rash mesh their talented actors elegantly with their heartfelt screenplay and direction.
I guess what really draws me to The Way, Way Back more than it may for others is that I love this subtle but charming type of filmmaking. There’s always at least one indie comedy like this that slips into the summer movie season and does a lot with its simplicity, much like last year’s Safety Not Guaranteed. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve said before in my reviews, I’m a sucker for coming-of-age films. For me, the movie brought back many nostalgic memories of being an introverted teenager in middle school, some really amazing summers I’ve had when I was younger (but hey, I’m still a teenager, I’m not done growing up yet), and of course, the ol’ water park. It doesn’t get more nostalgic than that. Like I said, this movie won’t have much of a presence during the awards season later this year, but it never really aims for that level of prestige. At the very least, The Way, Way Back is the perfect break from all of the summer blockbusters; it’s hilarious, it’s relatable, and it delivers on what it promises. Even for a small movie, there’s still a lot to love.