It’s not often that you leave the theater feeling 100-times better than you did when you entered. To leave the theater grinning from ear to ear and feeling good about life takes a hell of a film. The Way, Way Back is one of those films, and is a good bet to be the surprise hit of the year.
The film begins with Trent (Steve Carell) asking Duncan (Liam James), the son of his new girlfriend Pam (Toni Collette), what Duncan would rate himself out of 10. Duncan shyly responds modestly with a 6, and Trent wastes no time shooting him down, brutally telling him that he’s more of a 3. Unfortunately for Duncan, this is on their way to Trent’s vacation house where they will be spending all summer together. You quickly learn to hate Trent, and automatically feel for Duncan, a introverted teenage boy forced to deal with the recent divorce of his parents by being stuck on vacation with his mothers unbearable new boyfriend and his equally awful daughter (Zoe Levin). Worst of all, Pam is enamored by this sleazeball, and seems to be oblivious to the feelings of Duncan when he needs her the most.
The film sets the table for what could be a rather depressing story, but it’s only a table setter for what becomes an exciting coming of age tale that will change Duncan’s life forever. He soon meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) the manager of the local water park Water Wizz, and Owen offer him a job, seeing something in Duncan that no one else seems to bother to notice. Owen finds ways to tap into the mind of Duncan, shifting into a father figure role that directly opposes everything that Trent is doing. Slowly but surely Duncan comes out of his shell, with much help from Owen and the rest of the colorful staffers at Water Wizz that make minimum wage summer jobs at amusement parks look enviable.
Duncan finds friendship with Susanna the cute girl next door who he bonds with since her family is equally wacky and screwed up. Through her friendship with her and the colorful characters at Water Wizz, he soon comes into his own. Watching it unfold on the screen is truly a joyous wonder. This is largely due in part by the super-duo of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on Community) who both wrote and directed the film. These are the guys who won an Acadamy Award for the marvelous script that they did for The Descendents, so you know they’re good. Now their ample writing bleeds onto the screen as they have complete control over its direction.
Let’s not forget the cast, which is super from top to bottom. You got Susanna’s wacky mother Betty (Allison Janney) and her son Peter (River Alexander) who steal almost every scene that they’re in. You also get warm performances from who else but Faxon & Rash who are also characters at the theme park. Liam James nails the role of Duncan, harnessing the introverted nature while also capturing the spirit of a teenager coming to discover who he really is. You won’t believe how much you will hate Steve Carell, who is unbearable as Trent. Imagine all the worst traits of Michael Scott put into the biggest douche-bag on earth. I am a huge Carell fan, and even I couldn’t stand him. It’s a testament to his diversity as an actor, which many people don’t give him enough credit for.
The real winner is Sam Rockwell who gives what is surely one of his best performances ever. He channels classic Bill Murray with comical line after line that will have you in stitches. But even with all his wisecracks, he is the heart and soul of the film and becomes not only a great friend of Duncan’s but acts like a father to Duncan when he needs it most. I doubt the Acadamy will recognize him, but Rockwell is entirely award worthy in every way in the film. His portrayal of Owen is simply unforgettable.
The amazing thing about The Way, Way Back is that it finds ways to be special and spectacular although it’s material may not be anything new or different. People will be comparing it to Little Miss Sunshine and Adventureland and other coming of age tales of the like. Here’s my response: So what? Every year we see countless number of mind numbing sequels and reboots that say little and add nothing. The Way, Way Back finds a way to communicate with audiences on many levels even if it’s through a familiar tale. It will have you laugh, cry, and reflect on your own life. It has something to say.
The Way, Way Back is going to be the surprise hit of the summer. In a perfect world it could even be one of 10 nominees for Best Picture come next year. Even if not, it’s always going to have a firm place in my heart as a go to film when I need a picker upper, as it’s a crowd pleasure in the purest way fathomable. I left the theater with that rare top of the world feeling that only the truly great movies leave you with, and would love to go way, way back.