“The Way, Way Back” marks Nate Faxon and Jim Rash’s directorial debut. The team is best known previously for their writing work on Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” This film is a coming of age story about 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her difficult new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell).
The film opens with Duncan in the back seat of Trent’s station wagon, staring vacantly. His trance is interrupted by Trent, who asks menacingly through a rear view mirror what Duncan considers himself on a scale of 1-10. Duncan responds that he believes he’s a 6; Trent disagrees, saying he’s a 3 and he thinks Duncan should try to push that number up this summer. The family arrives in a vacation town and as soon as they start to unpack, are greeted by neighbor Betty (played hilariously by Allison Janney), the perpetually buzzed divorcée who’s in town for the summer with her two kids. Duncan’s misery grows as he meets each and every one of Trent’s empty, booz-filled friends.
Duncan finds a girl’s bicycle in the garage and, desperate to make a break for it, rides off, destination: unknown. He finds himself at a nearby waterpark, Water Wizz. It’s here that he’s approached by Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the park. Owen’s fast-talking, wise-cracking jokes go right over Duncan’s awkward head at first, but he catches on quick. Duncan’s secret friendship with Owen and his secret job at Water Wizz help Duncan to finally come into his own. With his increased confidence, Duncan’s interactions with his family are completely changed, much to the surprise of his mother and Trent.
Liam James’ portrayal of Duncan is excellent – these days, “awkward teenager” characters tend to be played in the standard mold Michael Cera has cast. But this isn’t the case in this film – Duncan is quiet, awkward, and tends to second-guess himself as soon as he starts speaking. Even his stature is awkward – he’s slightly hunched over and his arms move strangely when he walks. James played a whiney, underdeveloped teen character in “The Killing,” so its great to see that the kid has some chops.
It’s amazing to see an actor like Steve Carell play a completely unlikable character – he’s everyones nightmare father: judgmental, critical, and mean-spirited. The star, though, is really Sam Rockwell: he takes over as the charming friend and father-figure to Duncan. The long build up to introducing his character works because the entire time, all you want is for someone to be nice to the kid.
The film was shot on location in Marshfield, MA, and the environment screams “Cape Cod.” Faxon, who hails from Manchester-by-the-Sea, was perhaps inspired by his own family trips to the Cape. While the third act feels a bit rushed, overall the fill is great with strong moments throughout.
I think “The Way, Way Back” shows great strength and teamwork from Faxon and Rash, and I eagerly await whatever they do next.