Summer is the time when theaters are filled with big budget action films. If you are looking for a delightful change of pace look no further than “The Way Way Back” which wonderfully revives the relatable coming of age flick.
Duncan (Liam James) is a sullen pre-teen whose mom, Pam (Toni Collette), is recently divorced and is now dating Trent (Steve Carell). As a way of solidifying his relationship with her, Trent invites Pam and Duncan to spend the summer in his beachfront home.
The tension between Duncan and Trent is palpable when during their drive up to the summer home Trent asks Duncan, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself?” Duncan, understandably uncomfortable, stammers “6” after what seems to be an interminable pause. “I think that you are a ‘3,’” Trent quickly retorts citing his less than outgoing personality.
Bored hanging around the beach house, Duncan gets on his bike to explore the neighborhood and he is fascinated by the local water park, Water Wizz. He is quicky befriended by the owner Owen (Sam Rockwell), who comes across as a big kid himself and never seems to take anything seriously. Owen’s personality is the polar opposite of Duncan’s but he senses that he has the ability to draw the kid out of his shell.
At the New York press conference for “The Way Way Back” Sam Rockwell admitted that his performance was an homage to Bill Murray’s wacky camp counselor in the 1979 classic, “Meatballs.” It is hard to believe that 34 years have passed since that film was playing in theaters which weren’t even multiplexes back then. I don’t think that Bill Murray would quibble with Sam Rockwell’s performance in this crucial supporting role.
The best way to describe “The Way Way Back” is to think of it as a hybridization of the aforementioned “Meatballs” and the underrated 2009 “Adventureland” that starred Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as well as having then “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in its cast. For some reason screenwriters and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (best known for his role as Dean Pelton on NBC’s “Community”) were quick to pay tribute to “Meatballs” but were reluctant to acknowledge “Adventureland” as an influence for this film at the press conference.
As directors, Faxon and Rash were able to coax terrific performances out of the entire ensemble. Steve Carell, who normally plays a sympathetic bumbler in most of his hit films, is equally adept at playing the arrogant egomaniac who you wish would get his comeuppance. Toni Collette has played doormat roles before and she is fine as a pushover yet again. Allison Janney always seems to be the life of the party whenever she appears on screen and she is a hoot as Betty, the free spirit who lives in the beach house next door with her embarrassed daughter, Susanna (Anna Sophia Robb of the CW’s “The Carrie Diaries.”)
As much fun as it is to watch the big names in the cast, the success of “The Way Way Back” rests on the shoulders of Liam James who plays the film’s protagonist, 15-year-old Duncan. Often child actors frequently ham it up or overact. Thankfully, James is completely credible as Duncan.
“The Way Way Back” should be at the front of your movie should-see list.