Amongst a summer full of explosions, zombies, and superheroes there’s bit of a gem. Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash deliver a coming of age story that while rough around the edges, is as warm and pleasing a film you’ll find at the multiplex this year.
Liam James plays Duncan, a 14-year-old on vacation for the summer. He’s stuck with his mother’s boyfriend and daughter who fill the evil stepdad and step daughter archetype. Steve Carell plays Trent, the stepfather, and although he’s not the perfect fit for the role, seeing him step outside post the office is refreshing.
Liam plays Duncan as the brooding teenager in his first big performance so there’s an obvious rust, but the supporting cast help to create a more organic environment for him to grow in. Duncan doesn’t approve of his mother Pam (Toni Colette) dating Trentand a disconnect fosters between them. He’s alone.
Duncan mopes around (for a bit too long) and searches for something to do as his family enjoys the vacation. Amongst their family are friends all of which have a specific flavor to them (most notably Allison Janney, the hilarious neighbor). There other great supporting actors include Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, and the directors themselves.
Duncan’s summer changes as he meet Susanna, played by the sweet AnnaSophia Robb. She’s our girl next door character. Rather than a love interest, she is a bridge that allows Duncan to open up, allowing the audience to invest more in Duncan.
It’s this opening of Duncan’s world where the film begins to really shine.We meet my favorite character (of the year actually), Owen, played by an Oscar worthy Sam Rockwell. He’s a middle-aged dude that works at a local water park. Duncan meets him a few times earlier within the story and eventually they build a friendship that feels earnest a la great 80s Hughes film. For me it brought back memories of that one person we meet growing up that teaches us lessons our parents can’t. Owen is the prime example of that and among Duncan’s family issues, Owen represents something that will change not only his summer, but his life. Rockwell raises the film from decent family drama to a moving coming of age story.
His wise cracking jokes and sense of humor had me and the audience laughing the whole movie. This script is loaded with humor but also defines each character in different ways. The characters are familiar, but the script twists them into a new unconventional version of what we’re used to. Faxon/Rash create such a warm and colorful world that feels like the perfect summer vacation. While there’s no visual flare, they have a talent for building relationships between characters and allowing the actors to showcase their talent.
Owen is the most fleshed out supporting character and his relationship with Duncan takes it to an emotionally resonant level. I actually wish it had even more of this. At times the characters feels slightly off because of casting outside type and needing to hit story beats. But while the dysfunction and slow burning conflict within Duncan’s family is built, his time with Owen becomes all the more important.
Watching this story I found myself thinking something I don’t often think….I didn’t want this to end. Duncan can escape his troubles with Owen at this water park and he doesn’t want his summer to end because of the problems that lay beyond it.
The Way, Way Back is a coming of age movie ripe with a passion for youth. Faxon and Rash understand their talents are with letting actors build off each other. The characters are charming, particularly Anna Sophia Robb’s Susanna, and the humor makes it’s fun, but the heart is why it feels resonant. There are moments that captured what I experienced growing up; the very feeling that you’re growing up. It’s a rare feat in this type of film, but among cinema’s most rewarding for me.
The scenes towards the end make this rise to something special within the genre. I can’t think of characters this year that I’ve wanted to succeed more than these. There’s a transparency to some adult characters in the third act and Liam James’ performance doesn’t carry much range, but the film still oozes charm and finds a way to resonate. The general colorful atmosphere just screams “SUMMER” and the dysfunction of the family generates a feeling of wanting to escape and live in the water park forever. Really, the MVP and reason it works so well is because of Sam Rockwell’s Bill Murray channeling performance. If there’s one movie this summer so far that I could consider a summer classic, it’s this. I’ll happily watch this movie to remember what these sort of summers were like. The Way, Way Back delivers colorful characters in a coming of age story that sneakily packs an emotionally resonant punch.