We open our journey with the shy and quiet teenager Duncan (Liam James) as he’s being ferried off reluctantly to a “family” holiday with loyal mum Pam (Toni Collette) and her uber-tanned and emotionally intimidating boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Along the way Trent poses our 14 year old protagonist with a question; on a scale of 1- 10, what are you? It’s a hideous, squirmingly awkward exchange that comes to a particularly harsh taste at the end, one which sets the tone for Trent and Duncan’s relationship over the course of the film. After bullying the young man into resolutely confessing to believing himself to be a ‘6,’ Trent opines, or rather more convinces, Duncan is in actual fact a ‘3.’
Not surprisingly, Duncan is less than thrilled to be stuck in Trent’s beach house for the summer. Not helping boost enthusiasm is Trent’s collection of boozy friends, spearheaded by Allison Janney’s deliciously scene-stealing Betty, a woman with no sense of tact and certainly no filter. Unfortunately Duncan’s mum is seduced by atmosphere, the “spring break for adults,” and Duncan is frequently neglected. Fear not though before you think this is a maudlin affair! Whilst it may carry tinges of melancholy, for the most part The Way Way Back is a sweet, hilarious film thanks to Duncan’s daily escapes to nearby water park, Water Wizz. Taken under the wing of Sam Rockwell’s rebellious park attendant Owen, Duncan manages to find himself a little piece of salvation in the holiday from hell.
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, known for their Academy award winning screenplay for The Descendants, the pair manage to recapture that film’s sense of bonding in adversity, this time in Duncan’s surrogate family at Water Wizz. The latter also makes a ludicrously entertaining cameo as Owen’s colleague Lewis, hilarious in a way that will be of no surprise to fans of his work in NBC’s Community. Like The Descendants also, The Way Way Back provides a wonderfully delicate balance between heartbreakingly honest portrayals of familial dynamics, and outright humour.
There’s a nostalgic tinge to the film too, reminiscent of the best coming of age films of the 80s and 90s, a mood bolstered by that most John Hughes-y of tools, the alienated youth. Of course it wouldn’t be an ‘independent’ film without a good slice of contrived quirk. Duncan’s choice of transport is a pink girly bike complete with tassles. My goodness – how kooky! Another minor quibble is that with such an extensively A list cast, not everyone gets their fair share of screen time. Maya Rudolph is brilliant as Owen’s exasperated co-worker and love interest Caitlyn but the full scope of her comedic talents is never really utilised.
All in all though, The Way Way Back is a charming and sweet film that successfully has you rooting for its motley crew of colourful characters, thanks to a sparkling script and assured direction by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, as well as a plethora of stellar actors.