It could only happen in Hollywood; two experienced character actors (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) write a script and then get the chance to direct it. Working with a cast of award-winning pros (Steve Carell, Toni Collete, Allison Janey, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet) they spin a leisurely coming-of-age story about Duncan, a geeky teenage boy (17 year-old Canadian actor Liam James) grappling with his mother’s terrible choice in boyfriends. Blending witty dialogue with wry commentary on the pitfalls of maturation and the damage 40-somethings can do to each other when they refuse to grow up, The Way Way Back offers a refreshing alternative to this summer’s painfully bloated special-effects blockbusters.
When Duncan’s mother Pam (Collette) decides to spend the summer with her new boyfriend Trent (Carell) at his beach house, she insists on dragging Duncan along so he can “bond” with his potential step-father and the latter’s daughter, a condescending twit a few years Duncan’s senior. Trent’s cottage is cheek-by-jowl with neighbors Betty (Janey) a boozy divorcee & Joan (Peet) whose husband has a handsome boat and a blind eye regarding his wife’s interest in Trent.
Lonely and awkward, Duncan discovers a means of survival at a local waterpark run by Owen (Rockwell) an aging hippie who presides over a staff of delightful misfits intent on having at least as much fun as the park’s paying customers. Perhaps sensing something of his younger self in Duncan’s seething isolation, Owen gives him a job. As the summer unfolds, Duncan discovers new skills that enable him to discern & distinguish between the values Owen & Trent evidence, setting the stage for a child/parent confrontation as truthful as it is poignant. As the credits roll, Duncan strides into maturity, his mom trailing resolutely in his wake.
In addition to co-writing and directing the movie, Faxon and Rash play two of Owen’s more outlandish staff members with an easy oddball charm that makes them as likeable in front of the camera as they are behind it. While the lines they supply Carell, Collette and their summer neighbors perfectly reflect the false bonhomie of their characters, the dialogue provided for of the waterpark’s employees gets a bit saturated with the screenwriters desire to be cute, testing the limits of their credibility.
But that’s small beer; Carell makes Trent a wonderful male snake, manipulating those around him with careless disregard for the consequences while Collette, Janey & Peet personify the type of female you work hard to escape at a cocktail party that threatens to go on too long. But Back belongs to Rockwell; with effortless aplomb, his Owen is a delightful concoction of insight, showman’s blather, genuine concern and machine-gun timed flippancy. The result is wondrous - - the creation of a character anyone would find far more entertaining and well grounded than any of the adult characters with whom Duncan is forced to interact. The result is a film with loads of gentle humor which also has the courage to grapple with substantial issues as it follows its adolescent hero towards a perfectly crafted climax.
The Verdict? Warm, witty and wise; a definite charmer for the dog days of summer.
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