Way Way Back, The (2013)


Director:  Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Cast:  Liam James, Steve CarellToni ColletteAllison Janney, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph
Plot:  Shy 14-year-old Duncan goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and her boyfriend's daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park.

Genre:  Comedy / Drama

Awards:  -
Runtime:  103min
Rating:  PG13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.

“Duncan!  On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?”

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the brains and wit behind the Oscar-winning screenplay for Alexander Payne's The Descendants (2011), delivers another quite outstanding work in The Way Way Back, their directorial feature debut.  I won't be surprised to see an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for them again. 

Starring big names such as Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back is one of those ensemble cast comedy-dramas that features a dysfunctional family trying to bond together by traveling somewhere to spend their summer holidays.  It is filled with awkward moments, some truly hilarious scenes, and scenes with warmth and heart that combine to give a feeling of tempered optimism.

Why such films work is because the optimism is grounded in a huge dose of reality, with richly-developed, albeit flawed characters creating that reality.  It is a reality of familiarity – no sugar-coating and false truths, but a depiction of life as it is and how people just... are. 

We are brought into the perspective of a teenage boy named Duncan (Liam James) from the opening shot.  An introvert who has problems integrating with his new 'family', he finds a new lease of life when he meets Owen (Rockwell), the manager in charge of Water Wizz water park. They strike a friendship that changes Duncan's outlook towards life.  James gives an endearing performance that is natural, in particular his scenes with Rockwell and AnnaSophia Robb, his pretty next door neighbour.

Like the hit Little Miss Sunshine (2006), The Way Way Back alternates between comedy and drama with ease, sometimes within the same scene.  The control of tone is spot-on, and there is never a false moment, though it must be said that Rockwell's performance occasionally feels as if he is trying too hard to impress with his character. 

The Way Way Back is at times empowering, even if it does so in a subtle way.  Duncan's experience from his road trip is life-affirming, with Water Wizz serving as an important memory, or even milestone, in his journey towards emotional fulfillment.  We, as moviegoers, share that fulfillment too, and this makes it a poignantly satisfying watch.

Verdict:  The kind of hilariously poignant comedy-drama that you will come to love, topped with rich dialogue and characterizations.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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