The coming of age story has never been anything new. From The Breakfast Club to Stand By Me to Juno, there’s just something about the subject of growing up that seems to offer unlimited potential when it comes to basing a film around the transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s easy to brush off movies like this because of their focus on the kind of angsty, self-obsessed, melodramatic people who teenagers tend to be, and as an adult it’s easy to become frustrated with the kind of behavior that usually dominates the coming of age tale. However, if you take a step back and let yourself honestly think back to that time in your life, there aren’t many among us who weren’t just as naive and irrational as the characters on screen. The transition between that silly kid you used to be and the slightly less silly person you’ve become was likely far less than painless, and even though the situation surrounding that pain was probably very different than what’s happening on screen there’s still a lot of power in that memory. With that in mind, it’s understandable why the teenage age bracket is so full of cinematic potential, and between The Perks of Being a Wallflower last year and The Way, Way Back this year it doesn’t look like that potential is going to go to waste any time soon. Between a dynamite supporting cast and incredibly rich character development, the emotional and comedic punches doled out by The Way Way Back make it a strong contender for my new favorite movie of the year.
The Plot: 8/10
14-year-old Duncan’s summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and his daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park.
In terms of the story, The Way, Way Back doesn’t offer up much that hasn’t been offered up before. Some might argue that this makes for a boring plot, but I thought that it did a much better job of maintaining the realistic feeling of the movie. The amount of character drama that the film is able to build up completely makes up for any deficiency of major plot points, and because of that I never felt any strain on my ability to pay attention to what was going on. I particularly liked the ending, which manages to convey a sense of progress without ignoring the fact that life for these characters will presumably keep going on once the cameras stop rolling. After all, real life doesn’t have neat and tidy endings to fade out on. We have to look to those little pieces of accomplishment or understanding to tell us that the things that have happened along the way have meant something.
The Writing: 9/10
I’ll focus on dialogue more in the Comedy section, but even without that aspect of the writing I could go on for pages here. Usually in a movie like this, you get two or three well-formed characters surrounded by various stereotypes that have occupied films scripts since the dawn of the medium. On the surface, the characters in The Way, Way Back fall into those frames fairly neatly; the angst-ridden awkward teen protagonist, the cute but socially disillusioned love interest, the dick-ish Stepdad, the older mentor, the list goes on and on. When you dig beneath the surface though, there aren’t many other recent examples in which those character types are more richly expressed and believably written than they are here. There was only one character who felt anything but two dimensional (Duncan’s semi-Stepsister is basically any bitchy teenager you’ve ever seen), but for the most part I felt like I could have easily known people like the ones on camera.
The Acting: 9/10
The character depth in the script is brought to life across the board here by some of the most honest and touching performances I’ve seen all year. Liam James is a surprisingly strong protagonist, bringing Logan Lehrman in Perks of Being a Wallflower to mind. James occasionally defaults to awkward shrugging but makes up for it with a sort of defiant confidence that switches its roots from anger to self-acceptance over the course of the movie. AnnaSophia isn’t going to win any Oscars for her character here but she still brings the same forced optimism and underlying sadness that made Bridge to Terabithia so emotionally powerful. Towering over the both of them, however, is Sam Rockwell. While his character is often a little over-the-top and serves largely as a source for comic relief, Rockwell’s performance acts as an emotional anchor and makes it clear that his character is a normal person who prefers to take life less seriously than those around him for the sake of his own sanity.
Surprisingly, the supporting cast is just as strong as the leads and with a lineup like this, that’s hardly surprising. Toni Collette is more or less within her wheelhouse here, but the amount of denial and uncertainty she is able to convey with her performance makes this one of my favorite performances of her career. Steve Carell on the other hand is playing decidedly against type, and the effectiveness of his performance will likely make a lot of people who love the man’s sweeter side very uncomfortable. What really impressed me about his portrayal of the character, though, was that he didn’t just feel like a two-dimensional asshole. Instead, he comes across as an asshole who is trying to seem like a nice, reasonable guy despite his obsession with image and status that makes Duncan hate him so much.
The Dramedy: 10/10
With any cross-genre movie like this, it’s hard to pick a category to judge it by. For example, slotting Cabin in the Woods under either Horror or Comedy would have been a misnomer in either direction as it proved more than capable of seamlessly integrating both. That same seamless integration is present in The Way, Way Back in the way it manages to switch between Comedy and Drama without creating an inconsistent tone. This seems to be the case when an emphasis is placed on Drama with periodic comic relief, rather than when an emphasis is placed on Comedy with dramatic breaks (i.e. The Heat). In fact, nearly all of the humor in the film comes from two characters; Rockwell’s joke-spouting Water Wizz manager Owen and Allison Janney’s alcoholic busybody and the gang’s next door neighbor Betty. The rest of the cast contributes to the laughs every now and then, but mostly by existing as foils to those to characters.
As a final unconnected note, I’d like to point out the fact that the film was co-written, co-directed and co-starred in by Nat Faxon and Community’s Jim Rash. The fact that this is each of their directorial debuts is nothing short of amazing to me.
The Verdict: 9.0/10 – Incredible
+ Some of the most dynamic and three dimensional character’s I’ve seen in recent years
+ Amazing performances from the entire cast, especially Carell and Rockwell
+ Extremely funny when it’s trying to be and pretty damn moving when it’s not
– If you can’t get past the focus on a moody teenager, you’ll probably get a little bored
Rotten Tomatoes: 83 %
The Cinema Monster: 9/10
Fast Film Reviews: 4.5/5
Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8.5/10
The Code Is Zeek: 4/5
Average: 8.7/10 – Impressive