Despite having a somewhat naff title, The Way Way Back might just be the best film I have seen this year. Funny, poignant and incredibly insightful, this film is an absolute treat that soars from beginning to end, addressing myriad important issues in a wildly entertaining way without ever becoming preachy or overly sentimental. This film, which is the directing debut for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Academy Award-winning duo who wrote the equally wonderful The Descendants, explores the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in a world where the adults are too self-absorbed to have any idea what their children are going through.
The story centres around Duncan (Liam James) a 14-year-old boy who is forced to spend his summer holidays with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) at the beach house of her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), who has his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) in tow. The introverted Duncan finds himself at the mercy of Trent’s incessant put-downs and arrogant posturing. In fact, as we discover in the opening moments of the film, Trent is easily one of the vilest movie characters of all time and it is interesting to see Carell taking on such a role. As a result, Duncan has to find a way to avoid Trent and starts spending his days at the Water Wizz waterpark, where he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) and his merry band of misfits, two of whom are played by Faxon and Rash.
Meanwhile, the adults, who also includes the perpetually pissed next-door neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), whose breezy, party-girl attitude is hilarious to behold but hides the sadness of her own divorce, along with Trent’s long-time friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), settle into their own routine of partying every night with the various couples from the other beach houses, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Wounded by marital grief and desperate to make her relationship with Trent work, Pam is oblivious to Duncan’s pain. In fact, her willingness to abet Trent’s humiliations of Duncan makes it hard to sympathise with her.
At Water Wizz, Trent secures a job and develops a strong friendship with Owen, the park manager who initially presents as the most unlikely and unsuitable role model but ultimately turns out to be the only adult with a heart. The friendship between Duncan and Owen is natural, fun and mutually rewarding, challenging notions about the appropriateness of friendships between adults and adolescents. Age is no barrier here and the confidence that Duncan develops as a result of this relationship enables him to confront his mother and his feelings for Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). It is Rockwell who steals the show as Owen, with a winning combination of rapid-fire mirth and genuine heart that is a joy to watch. Furthermore, his relationship with girlfriend-in-waiting Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) seems so real that you can’t help but believe that they will be together forever.
The Way Way Back mixes styles and mood; it is a thoughtful, sometimes painful and often hilariously funny film about friendship and the pain of growing up in a contemporary world in which relationships and notions of family are ever changing. Yes, the filmmakers have included representations of teenagers that are typical of other less polished films – such as the vacuous and seemingly self-absorbed Steph – but the film also makes it clear how her relationship with her father and her own insecurities have shaped her persona. James is spot-on in his portrayal of Duncan as a teenage boy struggling to find his place in the world while Susanna demonstrates a far greater sense of maturity and compassion than most of the ‘grown-ups’ are able to muster.
The film explores the perils of being a teenager and the impact that adult behaviours and attitudes can have on them. It is the teenagers who lead the way in this narrative and it is great to see young people – particularly boys – portrayed as something other than brainless, sex-obsessed buffoons. Even the smaller characters are great and actually bring some of the best laughs. There is just so much to enjoy in this heartfelt and highly entertaining film.