Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty
“Duncan, you asleep back there buddy? Duncan?” “What?” “On a scale of one to ten what do you think you are?” “I dunno. A six.” “I think you’re a three,” says Trent (Steve Carell) to Duncan (Liam James), the shy 14 year old son of his girlfriend, Pam (Toni Collette), as he drives them plus his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) to his beach house for a family summer getaway in the comedy/drama The Way Way Back.
After arriving at the summer house, meeting neighbors Betty (Allison Janney) and her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and practically being forced to go to the beach, Duncan can’t wait to get away from the summer beach house and away from his mother’s overbearing boyfriend. Duncan borrows an old bicycle and rides into town where he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) playing a video game and is almost instantly drawn to his affable personality. The next day Duncan once again rides the bike into town and finds the Water Wizz water park where Owen is the manager. Owen, realizing that Duncan is a lonely, likeable kid with no confidence, gives him a tour of the park and offers him a part-time job to help out and clean up accidents. Soon, Duncan is spending as much time as he can at the water park and with Owen who quickly becomes a surrogate big brother and odd mentor to the struggling teen.
Funny, sweet, but uneven in tone, The Way Way Back is a coming-of age story that benefits greatly from a stand-out performance by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell steals the film as the affable jokester and mentor who teaches Duncan not to take life so seriously and teaches him to have some fun while discovering it’s okay to laugh at yourself sometimes. Young Liam James is very effective as Duncan, the shy, awkward, and sensitive young man who’s struggling with a home life that he’s desperate to escape from and for whom the water park and Owen offer just that refuge. The best scenes in the movie are between Rockwell and James.
Another scene-stealing performance is by Allison Janney as the loud, free-spirited neighbor Betty. Her character by far gets the most laugh-out-loud lines in the film. Steve Carell delivers a solid performance as the oppressive boyfriend who never misses an opportunity to wittle down what little confidence Duncan has. It’s a very different role for Carell who nails the part.
The one big problem with the The Way Way Back is with its structure. The constant going back to the beach house and having scene after scene of the adults getting drunk, being silly and sometimes mean and experiencing what seems to be a mid-life crisis is unnecessary. Everything the audience needs to know about the family setting and nightmare that is Duncan’s reality is shown incredibly well in the first 20 minutes of the film. Almost all of the beach house scenes after that are a waste and a distraction from the main story. The only exception would be the rainy day scene where the family is stuck inside all day playing a board game and Pam begins to discover a sad truth about Trent.
The first crush/love sub-plot between Duncan and Susanna is never given any real time to develop into anything the audience will be able to connect with or identify with. It’s just another distraction from the real story of Owen giving Duncan the insight and fun he’ll need in order to deal with and survive his family life.
The Way Way Back is a charming and engaging coming-of-age film which movie-going audiences are sure to enjoy due to the solid chemistry between Rockwell and James.
The Way, Way Back is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.
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