The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back

Coming of age stories are a rage right now, judging from the popularity of recent flicks such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Adventureland. The Way Way Back is cut from similar cloth, but lacks the certain edge of its compatriots. 

The last place Duncan (Liam James), a socially awkward 14-year-old, wants to be is at his mother's (Toni Collette) new boyfriend Trent's (Steve Carell) summer home near the Hamptons. Not only does he miss his father, Trent is a narcissistic jerk. Duncan constantly feels ostracized and unwanted. His awkwardness around their neighbor's daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) further aggravates his misery.

Fortunately, Duncan finds his refuge at a local watermark where he meets one of the managers there named Owen (Sam Rockwell), who is basically a boy stuck in a grown man's body. Owen and Duncan immediately hit it off, like long-lost brothers; and to put the young man out of his misery, Owen gives Duncan a summer job at the park.

Eventually, through the extroverted Owen and his peers, Duncan learns the social skills he so sorely lacks. He also becomes more confident in himself to stand up to Owen, to defend his mother, and to find the courage to befriend Susanna.

As Duncan, Liam James (2012) exudes the right amount of awkwardness and introversion to make the character work. James is not the best young actor in the business, but his lack of acting finesse actually works in his favor in this role. As his counterpart, Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths) is excellent as a man who needs a new perspective. Their friendship is heartfelt, bordering on creepy "bromance" if not for their respective heterosexual interests.

The supporting cast is an eclectic mix of veteran dramatic and comedic actors. As Trent, Steve Carell (The Incredible Wonderstone) plays against type as a straight, charming, handsome jerk. He sinks his teeth in the role without making it a cartoonish, stereotypical bad guy, just an ordinary man that we'd all love to hate. Toni Collette (Hitchcock) also does a great job as Duncan's passive mother. Allison Janney (Touchy Feely) is so good playing the dizzy, overzealous neighbor. As the object of Duncan's affection, AnnaSophia Robb (The Soul Surfer) seems somewhat out of place, and her character is a bit forced.

Directed and written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the minds behind the fantastic The Descendants, this screenplay surprisingly feels rather slight and "afternoon special" at times. In many ways it feels like a knockoff of Adventureland, which is also set in a park with an eclectic group of characters and a dysfunctional family. It has a good coming of age arc, but all too familiar, cliched, complete with the young love interest. It lacks the quirkiness of Adventureland, the immeasurable sadness of Wallflowers, or the edge of Mud. The humor also seems rather amateurish, bordering on cartoonish.

The direction also reminds of of Adventureland. Unfortunately, since that movie is set in the 80s, the nostalgic tone works very well. In this movie, I got disoriented and it took me a while (and seeing an iPhone) to realize the story is set in current time. The pacing also seems off at times and the beginning definitely drags -- it takes too long for Duncan to meet Owen. The characterization is good, but the pacing can be tightened.

It's not to say The Way Way Back is a failure. Much of it is enjoyable and it's a nice coming of age story that only feels familiar because of the typical characters and plot line and the unfair comparison to the superior Adventureland.

Stars: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peets
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and drug use
Running Time: 103 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 8

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0 

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