Early on in The Way Way Back, Sam Rockwell, playing the wise and quick-witted Owen, tells an awkwardly shy Duncan, played by Liam James, that, “You cut your own path”. In the moment, Rockwell’s character is just making a reference to Pac-Man, yet this message seems to be personified throughout the entirety of this coming-of-age story written and directed by Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Like many summer coming-of-age films before it, The Way Way Back tells the story of a shut-in teenager who feels utterly lost in his less-than-perfect home life. Though the formula has been used before, Rash and Faxon are able to weave a layered story that is not just universally relatable, but one that is perhaps the most likeable and most satisfying movie of the summer.
The movie begins with a quiet Duncan sitting in the way, way back (Hey, that’s the title of the movie!) of Trent’s car. Trent, the boyfriend of Duncan’s mother, proceeds to prod at Duncan, asking him where he sees himself on a scale of one to ten. The conversation turns when Trent tells Duncan that he is only a three and that he should take the summer to branch out and make new friends. Played masterfully by kind-hearted comedian Steve Carell, Trent is introduced immediately as the main antagonist and the character that Duncan will be at odds with throughout most of the film. Though Trent comes off as a genuinely bad guy, Carell brings a subtle, yet important dimension of sincerity to the character. The audience understands that Trent merely wants Duncan to be more social, but the manner in which he presents himself is just particularly biting. For such an ensemble piece, Rash and Faxon are able to write characters with very deep layers and Trent is the perfect example.
Trent and Duncan’s mother Pam, played by Carell’s Little Miss Sunshine co-star Toni Collette, come off as a very physical couple, making it even more uncomfortable for Duncan to be around the two. To make it worse, Pam is so desperate to fit in with Trent’s beach friends that she remains completely oblivious to Duncan’s needs. The irony of this is that Duncan is in the same place, just trying to make friends. The parallels between each of their journey’s demonstrates how each character is going through a right of passage, facing their giants with the same disillusionment, yet remaining very separate from one another. Duncan is particularly discouraged by this incessant loneliness through the first act, but that all changes when he meets Owen, the manager of a local water park called Water Wizz.
Clad in a wife beater and cargo shorts, Owen serves as a surrogate father/mentor to Duncan, bringing out the confidence that was always there, while still facing demons of his own. Rockwell is perfect as this slacker-for-a-living, being naturally charismatic yet painfully aware of his inability to really grow up. This is represented by the water park, which symbolizes a time in our lives where we don’t need to be a grown-up and face the issues that adults face, making it a haven to those who wish to remain carefree. The exception to this might be Caitlyn, played by the wonderful Maya Rudolph. As Assistant Manager of the Water Wizz, Caitlyn carries most of the responsibility in keeping the park together, as her manager and assumed lover Owen doesn’t really care for logistical work. Rockwell and Rudolph, though never extremely physical like Carell and Collette, have perfect chemistry and play off of each other with a subtle attraction that makes their relationship all the more sweet (The scene where Owen clumsily tries to set up the beach chairs, if a smile doesn’t peek out of the corner of your mouth, you clearly have no soul.). Caitlyn helps to bring out the maturity in Owen, who without her, might just stay in a constant state of immaturity. Like Duncan, Owen needs to learn to come of age, making the relationship between the two not just a mentor-mentee bond, but also an honest and caring friendship.
Duncan is clearly the character that drives the film, appearing in every scene of the film, so a lot of the film’s credibility relies on the performance from Liam James who, with the exception of his recurring roles on The Killing and Psych, is a relative newcomer. Nevertheless, James brings a perfectly pointed innocence to Duncan and being the age of the actual character, it’s clear that he is going through the same kind of transition. One very clear demonstration of this is his crush on the girl next door, Susanna. She immediately becomes interested in Duncan, as she sees that he is a very damaged individual like herself. AnnaSophia Robb really works as this troubled teen, bringing a sense of youthful rebellion that defines her character. Though Susanna is at a point where she can be confident with herself, she understands Duncan’s plight and shows true interest in helping him through his awkward phase. Allison Janney also pops up as Susanna’s mother, a drunken floozy who faces her recent divorce with sun tanning and lots of liquor. This role is tailor-made for Janney, who is as manic and sharp-tongued as ever, providing a good portion of laughs while also explaining Susanna’s rebellious nature.
It seems nearly impossible for someone to dislike The Way Way Back, as it is filled with humor, honesty, and heart. While it may be reminiscent of past coming-of-age stories, its snappy dialog and colorful cast of characters sets it apart, making it a film that’s not only fun to watch but also one that makes you think back on your teenage years long after you’ve left the theater. With their latest endeavor, Rash and Faxon have cemented themselves as two of the best screenwriters working today and have started what I’m sure will be a very fruitful career in direction. If not anything else, this film makes us realize that, in life, at some point or another, we all end up in The Way Way Back.
Review by Harrison Richlin