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The Way, Way Back
PG-13....103 min.....Comedy, Drama
July 5, 2013 (LIMITED)

the way way back
© 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

WRITERS / DIRECTORS: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb,
Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and Liam James

DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Searchlight

Grade: ★★★★☆

“The Way, Way Back is the coming of age story of 14-year-old Duncan’s (Liam James) summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Having a rough time fitting in, the introverted Duncan finds an unexpected friend in gregarious Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the Water Wizz water park. Through his funny, clandestine friendship with Owen, Duncan slowly opens up to and begins to finally find his place in the world—all during a summer he will never forget.”

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s delightful directorial debut probes notions of family, identity, and happiness, through the eyes of a nearly confidence-less teenage boy unhappily condemned to a summer at his mother’s boyfriend’s beach house. Boasting quick-witted dialogue, a heartfelt story, and a tremendously talented cast of seasoned veterans and up-and-comers, The Way, Way Back is one of this summer’s must-see movies.

The word “impressive” is a simultaneously apt and inadequate descriptor for the performance of Liam James. No easy feat for any (then-)fifteen-year-old, James successfully crafts a teenage boy who is entirely relatable from his first moment in the way, way back—i.e., the road-facing seat at the back of a station wagon—to his last. Both his objections and reactions are reasonable, rather than teen-trademark rash. And Duncan’s transformation from desolate and disastrously awkward to cheerful and confident—made believable by its slow-and-steady, rather than sudden, pace—packs an emotional and memorable punch.

the way way back
© 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo: Claire Folger)

If there is one dominant trait that defines Toni Collette’s Pam—a recently divorced, midlife mother—it’s her overwhelming fear of being alone. She loves her son, yet stands mostly silent in the face of Trent’s (Carell) douchebaggery and Duncan’s conspicuous misery. Collette’s complex performance is one that inspires sympathy while inviting indignation—that any mother would, for any reason, permit her child to be so treated is baffling at best.

Allison Janney’s Betty is yet another reminder of Janney’s comic genius. Betty, Trent’s booze-fueled and yenta-like next-door neighbor, determinedly hides the pain of her own divorce behind a facade of tequila, sexual innuendo, and gossip. Yet Janney’s talent for character creation is evident in the fact that even Betty’s frequent tactlessness does not belie her good-natured sensibility. And the mother-son chemistry between Janney and the amusingly wry River Alexander, playing her youngest son in his feature film debut, is laugh-out-loud funny.

the way way back
© 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo: Claire Folger)

The Way, Way Back explores Duncan’s search (and need) for a replacement father figure by juxtaposing the patriarchs of Duncan’s two summer worlds: Trent (Carell) and his “spring break for adults” versus Owen (Rockwell) and the Water Wizz water park. From them, Duncan learns that while a new ‘family’ can be forged, it cannot be forced.

Despite playing against type, Steve Carell succeeds admirably in giving life to Trent, a self-righteous, patronizing, and mean-spirited bully. But, at the same time, Trent is so obviously repugnant that it renders Pam’s willingness to ignore the truth about him even more inexplicable. And yet, there is also a nicely-crafted undercurrent of sadness in Trent—an emotional immaturity, and desperation to be (or, at least, appear) ‘happy,’ that stands between Trent and the kind of fulfilling relationship he so desperately craves.

Sam Rockwell’s Owen, the goofy, somewhat immature, and good-hearted manager of Water Wizz, stands like a strong bulwark against Duncan’s destruction by Trent. Rockwell is riotously funny in his early interactions with the excessively literal James. His Owen is also completely endearing, using his unabashed sense of self—and an emotional maturity that perhaps even he was unaware of—to help Duncan learn to define himself.

the way way back
© 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo: Claire Folger)

From emotionally powerful performances, to an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes tone that is sure to appeal to teen/twenty-something audiences, The Way, Way Back has something for everyone. Witty and full of heart in the best kind of way, The Way, Way Back is a charming coming-of-age tale that is eminently worth the sacrifice of two hours’ summer sun.

Featured Image: © 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo: Claire Folger)

10 Summer Chick Flicks: June 21–July 26

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The Author

Sarah Katz

Sarah Katz

Born-and-bred New Yorker. Lifelong film & TV lover—from chick flicks, rom-coms, rom-droms, rom-drams, and tweentertainment, to Shakespeare, period pieces, James Bond, fairy tales, and mafia movies.