It’s not the summer season without one good coming-of-age flick about an awkward teen coming to grips with adulthood. There’s a million bad ones out there, but when there’s a good one, it’s great. Fresh off the award season accolades for The Descendents, screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made their sophomore outing not only another written success, but a directorial success as well. The Way, Way Back finds itself as one of the most heartfelt comedies in quite a while. If not at least since last year’s remarkable Jeff, Who Lives At Home.
The Way, Way Back opens with Duncan (Liam James) being told by his mother’s (Toni Collette) new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) that if he rated himself from 1-10, ten being the best person in the world, that Duncan should be a 3. So right off the bat, you’ve got Carell breaking the typical oddball Michael Scott-type characters that he normally plays, to play a self absorbed douchebag. Carell’s character is bringing everyone up to his beach house for the summer, despite Duncan’s wishes to go to California to be with his real dad. During Duncan’s uncomfortable summer, he struggles with his social awkwardness, spending his days riding a pink bicycle around by himself, until finding a job at a local Water Park ran by a guy named Owen (Sam Rockwell). A friendship is formed and Duncan learns how to break out of his shell and picking up a life lesson or two.
Typically a lot of screenwriters tend to turn out one great story, in this case, The Descendents. Then every screenplay that follows just doesn’t feel as good. What Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who you may know as the Dean from Community) have done is actually create something just as memorable. It can’t help but feel like a very personal story. Sort of like how Adventureland was Greg Matola’s love letter to his teenage years working in a theme park, The Way, Way Back feels like a love letter to one of the two writers’ teenage years working in a Water Park. They not only manage to perfectly capture the essence of being an awkward 14 year old who is outside of his comfort zone, but make the audience feel the same feelings that he feels. When Duncan watches his mom be emotionally abused by her boyfriend, we feel his anger and confusion. When Duncan senses a crush on his neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), we kind of feel it too. And when Owen gives Duncan a loving “it’ll be alright” hug, we can’t help but feel like Rockwell just hugged the entire audience as well.
Rockwell might as well be the film’s star. Has the actor ever been so likable? I don’t think so. Owen is in his 40s, has clearly made some poor life choices, and run’s his Water Park about as unprofessional as you can get. His character never comes across as being a sleazy no-gooder though. Sam Rockwell plays the character with so much charm and wit that you wish YOU could be the one racing him down a water slide and hanging out with him at parties. Owen hit’s his prime the moment he steps in front of Duncan to just simply shield him from having to listen to the bullshit spewing out of Trent’s mouth.
I rarely ever say this, but one of The Way, Way Back‘s few issues was that it was too short. Another 15-20 minutes could have actually benefited the story greatly. As soon as Duncan is hitting his stride at Water Whiz and getting the interest of Susanna, the film ends. I process the notion of it being purposely done in order to say that that’s just how summer vacations are. They end abruptly when you don’t want them to end. But even then, it would have been nice to see just a few minutes more of the Water Park.
When all is said and done though, aside from a few underdeveloped sub-plots and loose ends, The Way Way Back is a fairly touching film about awkwardness, acceptance, and honesty. Powerfully driven by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s excellent screenplay and directorial control, it’s a film that SHOULD be considered as one of the best films of the year, but likely won’t be, much like last year’s Jeff, Who Lives At Home. The most impressive thing is that now that Faxon and Rash have proved to not be one hit screenwriters, it’s incredibly exciting to see what the dup will do next. This is almost too bad of a joke to pass up, but here goes, The Way, Way Back was WAY, WAY GOOD!
I give The Way Way Back a 4.5 out 5.
By Richard Pepper