The Way, Way Back
The Way, Way Back is the directorial début of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won an Oscar for their adapted screenplay of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. The film is an enjoyable, if uneven, coming-of-age summer comedy about a 14 year old named Duncan who has to go on an extended vacation with his mother, sister, and his mom’s new boyfriend. One thing this film gets perfectly is the world of middle-aged WASPs with beach houses. Much of the humor and several story points revolve around the “Spring break for adults” atmosphere created in this environment, and what a drag that can be when you’re too young to drink or have sex.  I have spent many summers in this world and have even frequented the very water park where much of the movie takes place when I was the exact age of the main character. (Water Wizz in Wareham, Massachusetts, hasn't changed at all in the 30 years since my last visit!). 

Liam James plays the introverted Duncan. While it is always difficult to engage with a passive main character, James scores by communicating to the audience what is going on behind Duncan’s eyes. The sympathy James engenders enables Rash and Faxon not to overindulge in the comic antics of the irresponsible adults that surround him. The film boasts a talented cast of comics, and it is refreshing that they are mostly trying to play for truth rather than competing for the maximum number of laughs. There is plenty of the expected indie-ensemble-movie shtick on display here, but it feels substantive rather than overtly quirky. Toni Collette does her best with the underwritten role of the lonely mom, and Allison Janney makes palatable the overwritten role of the drunken neighbor, but Steve Carell--who I think is much better at playing unsympathetic roles than he is at being a comic or an everyman--is especially effective as the loutish boyfriend.

Much of this film feels like an opportunity missed. Too many of the turns in the story are forced or melodramatic, and too much of what happens to Duncan feels too easy--and even unearned. For example, the budding romance between Duncan and the slightly older and way-out-of-his-league girl next door, played by AnnaSophia Robb, could have been better developed and more subtly motivated. Equally unlikely is that Duncan would find such an incredible mentor-father-figure in the local Water Park proprietor Owen, played by Sam Rockwell. However, this aspect of the film is handled with a far more deft hand. In fact, the depiction of this relationship is where The Way, Way Back really shines. Having Rockwell--the coolest, funniest, nicest, most responsible overgrown kid in the world--be your personal Obi-Wan Kanobi for the summer is every awkward boy’s fantasy come true. Rockwell knows exactly how to play this more responsible version of Bill Murray's character from Meatballs, and all the film’s flaws melt away when he’s on screen. At its heart, this is a movie about substitute fathers and how finding the right one or the wrong one can have a profound effect on a kid. On that basic level, the film succeeds beautifully.

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Produced by Tom Rice and Kevin J. Walsh

Written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

With: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, River Alexander, Zoe Levin, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Adam Riegler, and Jeremy Weaver

Cinematography: John Bailey
Editing: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: Rob Simonsen

Runtime: 103 min
Release Date: 12 July 2013