Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Movie Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

A coming of age dramedy, The Way Way Back dives into the pool of introverted teenaged gawkiness to discover the birth pangs of emerging maturity.

Duncan (Liam James) is a quiet 14 year old, suffering through the getting-to-know-you phase with Trent (Steve Carell), the oily new boyfriend of his mother Pam (Toni Colette). Trent's older teenaged daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is happy to ignore Duncan. The quartet head to Trent's summer vacation home near Cape Cod, where they meet vivacious neighbour Betty (Allison Janney) and her teenaged daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). 

Trent and Pam start spending long hours with Trent's friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), who own a pleasure boat. Left on his own and feeling like a complete misfit, Duncan wanders towards the cheesy Water Wizz water park where he meets carefree manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) and his co-worker/maybe girlfriend Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). Duncan's summer adventures start to improve when Owen takes him under his wing and Susanna attempts a friendship, but Trent's nauseating smarminess is never far away. 

Co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in their debut, The Way Way Back is a tender poke at that one memorable growing-up summer when misery, company and emotional growth collide. While the themes, incidents and overall mood of awkward bemusement bordering on despair are not necessarily new, Faxon and Rash mush enough cringey and hopeful moments together to build well-rounded characters.

Duncan is a mostly silent adolescent caught in the treacherously funny terrain between kid and adult, with that inherent perceptive child's ability to see right through Trent's facade and into his rotten core. That mom Pam is not ready to acknowledge her new boyfriend is a scumbag only makes Duncan more miserable, along with the indignity of being the only person having to wear a flotation device on the boat.

But a summer of long days also offers unexpected opportunities for positive encounters. Owen is a man jealously safeguarding his inner teenager's attitude towards life, and recognizes that Duncan just needs a nudge of belief and surrogate fatherhood to break out of his shell. Meanwhile Susanna is attempting to avoid getting blown away by the hurricane generated by her mom Betty, and sees Duncan as a calm harbour worth exploring.

Faxon and Rash create a modest middle class beachside community teetering between fading small town charm and suburban dullness, a place where every family is broken, breaking, or patched-up, and the dilapidating water park still attracts a crowd although the beach is minutes away. In this milieu Sam Rockwell is the standout performer, having a blast as a caring man perfecting the couldn't-care-less schtick. Liam James speaks volumes with pained expressions of emotional torture and few words. Steve Carell oozes barely disguised toxins, while Allison Janney allows easily excitable neighbour Betty to take flight.

The Way Way Back zooms through the twists and turns of water park tubes, dark places to navigate on the way to a bright new splash.



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