A film review by Craig J. Koban September 12, 2014 

RANK: #23

THE WAY WAY BACK jjj
½

2013, PG-13, 96 mins.

 

Liam James as Duncan /  Steve Carell as Trent  /  Sam Rockwell as Owen  /  Toni Collette as Pam  /  Amanda Peet as Joan  /  Maya Rudolph as Caitlyn  /  Allison Janney as Betty  /  AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna

Written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon

I remember the summers of my early teens like it were yesterday. They seemed to literally go on forever and without any care or sense of responsibility in the world.  I fondly recall frequenting a water slide park in Saskatoon called Penguin Park, and for hours upon hours my friends and I would wildly venture on any of their slides – no matter how miniscule or potentially frightening – like there was no tomorrow.  Most importantly, the park was a form of escape from the everyday; a place where we could bond, form new bounds with others, and collectively be away from whatever life was taxing us with.  When Penguin Park was closed and dismantled, I nearly wept.  

THE WAY WAY BACK – one of the most authentically rendered coming-of-age films that I’ve seen in many a moon – instantly made me recall my adolescent summers at the water park.  It has a young main character that's seeking refuge from the stresses of his daily family life and finds it at a local water park.  Superficially, THE WAY WAY BACK has many of the standard accoutrements of countless other similar genre films; it hardly reinvents the wheel in terms of narrative and themes.  Yet, what it does – and does with thankless and frank honesty – is observe all of the warts-and-all truths that plague many teenage souls that are desperately trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into a larger world that they don’t really understand.  More than many other coming-of-age dramedies, THE WAY WAY BACK is compellingly spot-on in terms of chronically just how painfully awkward it is for a boy trying to become a self-actualized young adult.  While watching it, I saw so much of myself in the film’s young protagonist that it almost became autobiographical, and for a film to immerse me as deeply as that is a major feat in itself.  

The 14-year-old main character in the film is both simultaneously identifiable and sympathetic while also being cringe-worthy to endure, mostly because he is so chronically unsure of himself within his own skin.  He’s Duncan (Liam James, a wonderfully natural young performer), and when we first meet him in the film he has a perpetual frown and watery eyed stare that makes it look like he’s about to burst into tears at any waking moment.  He’s so silent that you’d think he was a deaf-mute, and when he does speak he comes off as terrified.  This kid just does not want to engage with anyone or anything.  Duncan is arguably one of the most exasperatingly self-conscious, timid, and anti-social characters I’ve seen in a film.  He’s not detestable, though; just kind of hopelessly ill at ease. 

 

 

The opening scene sets up Duncan and his family with brilliant economy.  To his credit, his family life is kind of a disaster.  His divorced mother, Pam (the always fine and poised Toni Collette) has become involved with Trent (Steve Carell), a single dad with his own teenage daughter.  Initially, Trent seems like he’s going to be the proverbial nice guy of the film, but the opening scene – taking place in a car ride up to Trent’s beach house – is kind of merciless in its low-key cruelty.  Trent tries to engage Duncan in a conversation as he asks the kid to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10.  After refusing to answer numerous times, Duncan begrudgingly replies that he’s a 6.  Trent then matter-of-factly retorts that Duncan’s just a 3 in his book.  You know that this relationship will never be rosy. 

When they arrive at Trent’s beach home Duncan does whatever he can possibly do to avoid his family at all costs (and just about any other person for that matter).  He does become kind of smitten with his neighbor's attractive blonde daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), but seems totally clueless as to how to maintain any semblance of a conversation with her.  He does find salvation, so to speak, in the town’s water park, affectionately called “Water Wizz,” run by Owen (a crackerjack Sam Rockwell) who takes pity on Duncan and gives him a day job at the park.  The more Duncan spends time at his new job and new surrogate family in Owen and his staff, the more he is able to crawl out from within is own shell of meager gawkiness.  This catches the attention of Susanna, who starts to take a liking to the new and more outgoing Duncan, but just when things seem to be going well for him, his life back at home takes a dark detour. 

THE WAY WAY BACK marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (they previously won an Oscar for writing THE DESCENDANTS) and it’s a highly auspicious one.  They seem to have a command of infusing in their film innumerable scenes where they understand all of the observational nuances of their characters and predicaments.  They never seem to soft pedal the material for a cheap emotional payoff or allow for the film to descend into obtrusive genre clichés.   Even when we can see where the story is headed, there’s so much raw veracity in nearly all the scenes that it makes you willing to forgive the plot’s innocent plunge into predictability.  THE WAY WAY BACK balances heart-warming sentiment, hysterical merriment, and edgy pathos in ways that most other films – coming-of-age or not – only wished they could. 

The pitch-perfect performances only compliment the film’s richly modulated writing.   Liam James miraculously makes Duncan a deeply compassionate character despite his frustrating quirks; in a lesser young actors hands Duncan would have been unendurable, but James captures his characters nauseating unease and slowly growing maturity with secure confidence.  His scenes with AnnaSophia Robb (another genuine screen presence) never seem to have a false note.  I also liked the sublime Allison Janney as Susanna’s frequently inebriated and sometimes too-outspoken-for-her-own-good mother.  Steve Carell always seems to play affable characters in the movies, so it was a real treat to witness him go completely against type to play a selfish SOB that wants to come off as a nice guy.  Then there’s the limitlessly appealing Rockwell as the water park owner and new BFF/paternal figure to Duncan, who seems to have an innate ability to make just about every film he’s in exponentially better.  He makes Owen both a loveable motormouth that lives for disobedience and a touchingly vulnerable character at the same time.  Rockwell is all kinds of all right in the film. 

THE WAY WAY BACK does so many things so well that its inherent foibles seem to disappear.  It manages to evoke a sense of time and place when we were all young, unsure, anxiety plagued, and wanted nothing more than to get away to the simplistic pleasures of places like Water Wizz.  Beneath that, though, the film also probes the emotional wounds of Duncan with a brutal precision and truthfulness.  I loved how Faxton and Rash don’t build the film towards big, obvious crowd-pleasing playoffs; in the end, it’s not really about whether Duncan will get the hot girl next door or whether his mom will dump the unmitigated jerk that is Trent.  The conclusion – which culminates on one final and perfectly rendered shot – relays that Duncan’s life will not only continue to be beset with nagging complications (after all, life just is), but also that a renewed sense of optimism is in the air.  THE WAY WAY BACK put a smile on my face from ear-to-ear after seeing it.  Actually, it’s still on my face.

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