The Way, Way Back
Tender and understated drama from the writers of The Descendants
A coming-of-age comedy-drama, The Way Way Back is the directorial debut from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriters behind Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. This tale of an awkward-in-his-skin teenager isn’t quite as broadly accomplished as Payne’s film, though in its own quiet way, has much to recommend it. Liam James plays 14 year-old Duncan, forced to endure an excruciating summer with his well-meaning mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new partner Trent (Steve Carell).
Set to spend the holidays together in a New England beach house, Duncan’s self-confidence has already taken a battering from Trent on the journey up, when he forces the lad to rate himself on a scale of ten (Duncan mumbles ‘6’, only to be told he’s more of a ‘3’). With Duncan left miserable and isolated, even the attentions of literal girl-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) doesn’t seem to help. But then he meets Sam Rockwell’s Owen, the laid-back manager of Water Wizz, a nearby pool park.
Secretly sloping off to the park every day – on a girl’s bicycle, no less – Duncan is soon given gainful employment by Owen, who gradually coaxes him from his shell. If this is hardly groundbreaking (just swap James’ character from Jesse Eisenberg’s in the similar theme-park set Adventureland), what works is how Faxon and Rash show the angst isn’t all adolescent. The adults are all just as spun-out – from the dreamer Owen to Susanna’s boozy mother (Allison Janney); proof that life doesn’t get any easier as you get older.
It sometimes treads a too-obvious path – not least Carell’s oafish character, who, on top of everything else, is unfaithful. Certainly it’s not quite the Carell/Collette reunion that Little Miss Sunshine fans might’ve envisaged. But with Rockwell on fine form, Owen’s tender relationship with Duncan surrounds the low-key laughs with a beautifully understated emotional core.
General release from Wed 28 Aug.