It's genuinely and pleasantly surprising how good and truly enjoyable The Way, Way Back is. Written and directed by Academy Award winning comedy duo and actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants), the film is their directorial debut and shows their ability to juggle thoughtful character development with comedic situations and themes was no fluke. The film is a sweet, effective coming of age tale about long summers and personal growth set in a dilapidated water park.
So far, this summer has been populated with youth-oriented indie films about adolescent self-discovery (think Mud and The Kings of Summer). The Way, Way Back is full of nostalgic turns and hallmarks of forgotten vacations from the past. It's a more charming, innocent, and familiar tale than the similarly plotted Adventureland. It feels contemporary with earbuds and iPhones yet idyllic with bike riding, water parks, and disappearing for long stretches of time sans any cell phones.
Duncan (played by Vancouver actor Liam James) starts as the awkward, disconnected fourteen-year-old sad sack and slowly gains confidence under the tutelage of Sam Rockwell as Owen, the boyish manager of The Water Wizz, in a charming, likeable turn. Steve Carell absolutely nails the sly, subtly sleazy and overbearing boyfriend to Duncan's mom (Toni Collette), capturing a dick-ish nuance without over acting or being a full on villain. He's a great foil to Duncan and contrasts Rockwell's more fatherly Owen well. Faxon and Rash relish in these father figure type characters (obviously exaggerated segregates of themselves), playing off our expectations of casting both against type.
The Way, Way Back never feels false or unnatural, nor does it go too far with any of its sometimes heavy (somewhat clichéd) plot elements. Even the clunkier, tonally more difficult interactions are fairly natural yet genuinely awkward, rather than disingenuous. The film succeeds on the charm and chemistry of its cast with sharp, understated acting turns by AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and the directors themselves.
Faxon and Rash successfully explore themes of self-worth and discovery smartly though careful scripting and acting. Characters base their relationships on their own baggage and we see how it effects them. It's a warm story about struggling to find your own independence. The film captures all the highlights and pitfalls of lazy summers and kids dealing with adults around them who never quite grew up themselves.
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