From scriptwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon comes the latest Indy-spirited coming-of-age comedy-drama The Way, Way Back. Awkward teenager Duncan (Liam James) is dragged to a beach house by his mum Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Watching as the adults in his life regress to their younger days, Duncan struggles to fit in, until a chance bike ride brings him into contact with the Water Wizz water park and its eccentric owner Owen (Sam Rockwell). Striking an unlikely friendship, Duncan gets a job at the park and it becomes his only safe refuse from a disintegrating home life.
Starting off slowly, The Way, Way Back gives its cast of characters room to breathe and conversational patter that creates truthfulness. The opening exchange between Trent and Duncan “I think you’re a three” sets the tone of bullying and learning to stick up for yourself. In among these obvious and cliched themes there is a real truthfulness that masks the structure of the narrative and keeps you guessing all the way. Even the blossoming relationship between Duncan and an actual girl-next-door, in this case Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is effectively twisty and given more pathos by two great performances from the relative newcomers. Then there’s the supporting cast.
From borderline alcoholic motor-mouth Betty (Allison Janney) to put-upon water park assistant manager Caitlyn (Maya Rudolpho) everyone gets their own little chance to shine and each contributes to the rich tapestry of the world that the film creates. At the centre of this world are two very different but equally powerful performances. Steve Carell is on dramatic duty, proving once again that his emotional range is as wide as it ever was. His prickly turn as obnoxious Trent gives Duncan and the film it’s natural antagonist, while Sam Rockwell runs away with every scene he’s in as the exceptionally charismatic Owen. His one-liners give the film a repeat watch quality and whenever his character is left behind there’s a real sense of disappointment that perfectly mirrors what Duncan must be feeling.
But as important as Trent and Owen are as bully and refuge, it is Duncan’s relationship and ultimate disappointment with his mother that gives the film its narrative thrust. Toni Collette is perfect as the fragile recent divorcee desperate to make life with the new man work. Her meltdown over a game of Candy Land highlights just what an important role hers is, both for Duncan and we the audience.
The direction by newcomers Rash and Faxon is neatly handled and unlike a lot of similar films, really grounds the action in a definitive place, in this case the Boston shoreline. Once the World is created the characters are placed in their respective areas, splitting neatly between the battleground of the beach shack Riptide and the Peter Pan-like Wonderland refuge of the surrogate family in the water park. Once in their respective camps, their decision-making is realistic and while there isn’t time to avoid some caricatures, the supporting cast form a wonderful accompaniment to Duncan’s coming-of-age.
Like all the important summers in our own lives, The Way, Way Back never outstays its welcome and provides an instant sentimentality of that special time and place without ever cheapening it with the normal Hollywood shoe-horning. It provides a sense of warm-spirited nostalgia grounded by a gem of a script, which combine to create the perfect end-of-summer film.