Some movies have a moment where they just click and you instinctively know the filmmakers know what they’re doing. In The Way, Way Back that moment comes when the painfully awkward Duncan (Liam James) is being driven to the beach house where he will spend the summer and he locks eyes with Owen (Sam Rockwell). The low-key but undeniable chemistry in that scene is a hallmark of a film which gets all the small details right.
Having been told he’s a “three out of ten” by Trent (Steve Carell), a passive-aggressive jerk who is dating his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan plans to keep a low profile during his holiday. But any chance of a quiet summer is soon scuppered by nosy neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), who plots to have Duncan become friends with her long-suffering son Peter (River Alexander), who she torments because of his lazy eye. It’s Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who can sympathise with Duncan though, and they form a faltering friendship as the adults leave them to their own devices.
As Susanna observes, the beachside community is “like spring break for adults” and while Trent and Pam make merry with Trent’s friends, the introverted Duncan goes exploring on a a bike and ends up seeking refuge at Water Wizz, the slightly rundown but much-loved local water park managed by perpetual adolescent Owen. Seeing something in the earnest teen that nobody else sees, Owen decides to give Duncan a job as a dogsbody at the park, bringing him into a group of misfits that includes Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who is growing irked at Owen’s irresponsible ways and Lewis (Jim Rash), a sad sack who continually threatens to quit the park to pursue his dreams of being a storm chaser but never quite manages to leave.
The Way Way Back‘s story of a shy teen finding his place in the world over the course of a long, hot summer is by now a well-worn coming-of-age narrative, but this always feels more comfortable than cliched. The seaside small town with its endless beach parties and beer-soaked barbecues is lovingly evoked. The performances from an ensemble cast are uniformly topnotch, though it is Sam Rockwell who steals every scene as the sweet, funny and unexpectedly wise Owen.
Writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning The Descendants and have again struck gold, fashioning a wryly funny and nicely understated script which leaves the actors plenty to do. A big-hearted, bittersweet look at the pleasures and pains of growing up, and the compromises of adulthood, this is perfectly realised and way, way charming.
Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground