Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney
One of my favorite genres of movies is the classic "coming of age" story. The ones where some down-on-his-luck teen figures out some of life's earliest lessons. The best ones are the ones that aren't necessarily made for teens, but for adults to enjoy reflecting back on when they, themselves, were in similar shoes. The Way Way Back, a small comedy by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, spends its time weaving through awkward adolescence and tough life moments perfectly, giving the audience a reason to laugh and plenty to think about.
Newcomer Liam James stars as 14-year old Duncan, a kid in the prime of his awkward years and he wears it on his face, in the way he walks, and in the awkward things he says to the pretty girl next door. Steve Carell plays Trent, the mom's boyfriend you hate. He's arrogant and overly confident. At the start, Trent and Duncan are in the middle of a discussion while the blended "family" of the two and Duncan's mom, Pam (Academy Award nominee Toni Collette), and Trent's daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), are on their way to a beach house for the summer. In the midst of the conversation we see the first spark of ridiculousness as Trent asks Duncan how he would rate himself. Being the ever-so-humble nice guy, Duncan rates himself as a six. Trent says that he see him as a three. And so begins Duncan's summer of self discovery.
There are some great moments throughout the movie and very memorable characters. Allison Janney steals every scene she's in as the crazy beach house neighbor Betty. The best scenes are when she's interacting with her son, Peter, who has a lazy eye. She's not going to win Mom of the Year with some of her comments. Sam Rockwell as Owen, the lazy manager of Water Wizz, a local water park, gets to show off some of his comedic chops as a mentor who takes Duncan under his wing, giving him a job at Water Wizz and subsequently helping him come out of his shell.
The confidence Duncan gains at the water park helps him move past his awkward and shy moments with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the pretty neighbor girl who seems to take an interest in him. It also helps him face and deal with his growing anger towards Trent and the mess unfolding in front of his eyes after Trent chooses to be unfaithful with another woman. There's a lot of emotions riding high in the movie and, luckily for us, the perfect punch line further impacts each heartfelt moment and makes the tender circumstances sting even more.
Faxon and Rash are both debuting as directors on this film after sharing an Oscar win for the screenplay of The Descendants in 2012. There are moments of cheekiness that are almost a little too trying, but the performances highlighted here make up for that. The directors realize the impact of a film like this is making the characters as relatable as possible, even the crazy ones like Betty or Owen. Duncan's adolescence is something we can all relate to and, while you may have never dealt with the specific situations, you've definitely felt like your life was slipping out of your hands. The film never skips a beat, all the way to its rewarding finale.
Enhanced by a great, subtle soundtrack, The Way Way Back is one of those refreshing comedies in the mix of big budget and popcorn fare. It's definitely worth seeing and may be one of the best films of the year.
Runtime: 103 minutes