Film Review: The Way Way Back
The summer of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) gets off to a pretty lousy start. With his father otherwise engaged for the sunny months, the timid teenager reluctantly joins his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) on a holiday to the latter’s beach house in Cape Cod. At first alienated and humiliated as he tags along on “spring break for adults”, Duncan eventually finds comfort in a summer job at the local water park, helmed by the carefree Owen (Sam Rockwell). In addition, he gradually begins to form a bond with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb): the daughter of Trent’s next-door neighbour.
This sweet-and-simple premise – paired with the writer-director credits of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – is likely to instil preconceptions that The Way Way Back follows the staple rulebook of indiedom, and surprise-surprise, it does just that. This is bright, familiar film-making with few genuine surprises up its short sleeves, but even so, it savours its simple pleasures with an admirable candidness. There is no pretence to The Way Way Back‘s formula, and as a result, it makes for a delightfully laidback and likeable experience. That’s not to say it’s perfect, with the majority of its laughs appreciative rather than belly-busting, but to a degree, this is all part of its relatable charm. Optimism counters its bittersweet language, and consequently, any qualms with its simplicity or ambiguities are gently worn away as the story unfolds.
Alongside director Alexander Payne, Faxon and Rash helped co-write 2011’s The Descendants, and true enough, there’s more than a hint of that film’s gentle melancholy to The Way Way Back. One could go as far to label this film The Descendants‘ teenage sibling, though this is not meant in a derogatory manner. Rather, both films echo one another in their warmth and structural DNA. The resolutions of both stories – though they each twinkle with a sense of closure – are not concrete, and there are plenty of offscreen elements which are left undeveloped. There are times when plot strands such as these are just aching for further exploration (including a more substantial account of the relationship between Duncan and his parents), but for the most part, leaving all the nitty-gritty details oblique entrenches The Way Way Back‘s less-is-more mentality. There’s just the right amount of every ingredient to form a balanced whole, and besides, as with The Descendants, its real merits reveal themselves slowly over time. Repeat viewings will surely help to highlight its strengths.
Speaking of, alongside its breezy writing and bright settings, The Way Way Back is particularly noteworthy for its cast. James is perfectly anonymous as Duncan: a sullen-faced chap with bruises all over his self-confidence, yet one whose spirit is invigorating when it finally gets the chance to exhibit itself. In addition, Collette simply bleeds pathos as the soft-spoken Pam slowly begins to crumble into helplessness, and Robb makes a great impression from all-too-scant screen-time. Even though the plot concerning her Susanna does feel a little forced, it doesn’t prevent her from remaining welcome company when she appears. The film’s heartbeat is in good hands with such a triumvirate.
Better yet, the film is just as canny with its splashes of comedy, with the ever-dependable Rockwell (seriously, who else could it be?) on firing form throughout. Mixing deadpan deliveries with a sparkling sense of humanity, Rockwell is the film’s ace in the hole, nailing Owen’s dry witticisms in tremendous style. From goofing around on the job (“Is it a homicide?” he asks when informed that a “situation” requires his attention) to simply dispensing worldly advice, he’s a magnetic presence, and makes for the perfect surrogate brother to James’ queasy Duncan. Allison Janney fares just as brilliantly as Betty, the barmy woman next door who strives to recapture her youth while mercilessly laying into her own children.
If one really has to pick holes in The Way Way Back, then there are several to discuss. Its concluding set-piece does overdo things by a few margins, standing as slightly off-kilter and inorganic in relation to its modest story thus far, and again, viewers may find several threads wanting at times. But damn it all, it’s hard to begrudge The Way Way Back such shortcomings when it’s just so damn likeable. With its lazy grins, easygoing nature and a wealth of memorable characters, it boils down to 100 minutes of cinema which deliver everything promised from the outset.
It’s not without its flaws, but by God, it’ll leave you feeling warm. Tingling with nostalgia and with a bittersweet sting in its tail, The Way Way Back makes for a lovely farewell to the sunny season.
Posted on September 10, 2013, in The Film World and tagged AnnaSophia Robb, Film Review, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Jim Rash, Liam James, Little Miss Sunshine, Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, The Descendants, The Way Way Back. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.