Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Language, some Sexual Content and brief Drug Material
Directed by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Written by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry & Amanda Peet
I’ve been hearing about THE WAY WAY BACK since its premiere at Sundance. It was regarded as a sweet, sentimental coming-of-age dramedy. In this respect, the film holds up to what it’s been toted as. However, I feel that it comes at a most inopportune time for a film of this kind. In the past few years, we’ve seen many coming-of-age stories told in very different tones. Whether they be three-hour-long lesbian romances (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR), dark Hitchcockian thrillers (STOKER), a more serious-minded approach (MUD), or just outright comedies about an awkward young men finding their way in life (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, KINGS OF SUMMER, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY). In a year that’s been populated with five coming-of-age films (counting this one), THE WAY WAY BACK holds solid ground, but doesn’t necessarily do anything that we haven’t seen before.
The awkward youth in this case is Duncan, who’s going on a hellish vacation with his mom (Pam), her asshole boyfriend (Trent), and her asshole boyfriend’s daughter. In his frustration at the drunken antics of the adults and Trent’s rude behavior towards him that Duncan finds an escape in what little there is to do around town. Enter Owen, the easy-going manager of a water park. Owen takes Duncan under his wing and the two of them become fast friends. Taking on a part-time job at the park, Duncan discovers himself. All while Owen becomes a caring mentor to the troubled young man.
There’s a strong chance that we’ve all known someone like Duncan in our lives. A guy with poor social skills and some problems at home that take a heavy toll on his daily life. We’ve also probably known someone like Trent. One could argue that his character means well for Duncan in a sort-of tough love way, but the actions that his character takes later on, reveal his true colors as a self-centered prick. Steve Carell, known mainly for his comedic or leading man roles, proves himself to be surprisingly capable of playing the “villain” (so to speak). Trent is the one of most deplorable characters I’ve seen in a movie all year and Carell’s performance brings him to life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Sam Rockwell as the laid back Owen. Rockwell also brings his character to life as a slacker adult, who also genuinely cares about people. The relationship that forms between Owen and Duncan is nothing short of delightful to watch.
If Duncan, Trent, and Owen are the characters that everyone will remember, then Pam (Duncan’s mother) and Susanna (Duncan’s love interest) are the ones that everyone will gloss over or simply forget. I can’t blame them for this either. There isn’t a lot of love thrown into their characters. Toni Collette is good enough as Pam, but we aren’t given any real reasons to care other than she’s Duncan’s mom. AnnaSophia Robb is a phenomenal actress, but isn’t given much room to shine here. In fact, she’s pretty much regulated to the background in most scenes. Though Duncan is an interesting character and we root for him, Liam James seems to stumble over his delivery a few scenes. This might have been attributed to his awkward character, but I found it distracting.
For the most part, THE WAY WAY BACK follows the coming-of-age formula in predictable fashion to the inherently sappy conclusion. However, the formula has stuck around for a reason. It usually works and this is no exception. It’s a plot we’ve seen before, but it just happens to be done with a lot of charm here. There’s real enjoyment to be had and the film holds many sparks of truth relating to the characters. Overall, THE WAY WAY BACK is way way good!