Continuing the same tradition of an indie film (in style if not circumstance) in which there is family tension and unlikely friendships made, The Way, Way Back is certainly equal to its most obvious and excellent comparisons, Adventureland and Little Miss Sunshine. The latter even shares two main players, Steve Carell and Toni Collette, who are wholly gripping and emotive in both.
The film follows Duncan, who reluctantly joins his mum (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) on a summer break to Trent’s beach house in Cape Cod. Duncan starts off having a miserable time as the grown ups go wild, but then he finds the Water Wizz water park where he unexpectedly fits in and gets a job.
The film itself doesn’t do too much that we haven’t seen before in the two above films and their contemporaries, but everything is done with so much care, attention and love that it feels special and definitely as if it’s one of the best of the lot. It is the directoral debut for both Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, which probably explains it; they also wrote the screenplay, so this was clearly a labour of love and it comes across in the best way possible. The lighting is always fantastic, with the vibrancy of the coastal area shown during the day and night light being atmospheric but not too dark like many films. The camera perfectly captures the way Duncan is often the observer, peering with him around corners and across rooms.
Other than the main adult couple played by Collette and Carell, who display a complex range of emotions between them, the star player has to be Sam Rockwell as the water park manager, Owen. From the very first time we see him he’s constantly throwing quips and jokes into conversations – even building them entirely around nonsense – and he is the one character who absolutely must make you laugh, or at least crack a smile. He’s the one who draws Duncan out of his shell and he really becomes the life of the movie.
Allison Janney also deserves a mention as Trent’s beach next-door neighbour Betty who enjoys a drink or two. Her ability to be so brash and happy amongst her friends’ drama and her son’s lazy eye problem is a joy to watch, as is the moment she says goodbye to Pam in such a loving way after only a short time. She represents this weird kind of summer friendship that these adults cultivate, and she is definitely the second funniest in the film with the way she randomly comes out with some outrageous things.
Every actor does a grand job with some stellar material, so I won’t name them all. However, Liam James’ Duncan carries the film, and although it is quite hard to like him initially when his face is always so miserable and downtrodden, it’s impossible not to feel for him by the end. Thanks to him and everyone else around him, this is one of those films in which you suddenly realise you’re smiling, but only in the second half; we’re not happy until Duncan’s happy.
The Way Way Back is one of those teenage movies that isn’t just for teenagers; although our viewpoint revolves around Duncan, there is some serious adult drama going on too, and all of it is relatable to everyone. The majority of people were an awkward teen at some point, and those who weren’t will find a bit of themselves in someone, whether its tough Trent or wiseguy Owen. Whoever’s watching, the film is just bittersweet and loveable.
(NB In different places the film’s title is written as The Way Way Back and The Way, Way Back so I left the comma out for ease alone).