Movie Review: The Way Way Back- Although This Indie Comedy-Drama Follows a Familiar Formula it Finds Strength in Authentic Humor, Vibrant Characters, and Nostalgic Reflection

THE WAY, WAY BACKIndie films used to be known for their ingenuity in attempting to take liberties with expected story structures, typical character focuses, and often times manipulating genres but as the popularity of Indies became a mainstream comfort of escape they sort of faded back into accepting predictable formulas hitting typical narrative points and setting up familiar character dynamics. However, the real ingenuity can often times be found in the details of a familiar plot and that’s the real strength in the bittersweet The Way, Way Back, a delightful yet often painful summer getaway film that showcases a barrage of verbal wit, fantastically written characters, and most importantly a great deal of nostalgic insight. Screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who both won Oscars for their adaptation of The Descendants with Alexander Payne, have created an undeniably authentic and piercingly sentimental work of adolescent awkwardness that fits comfortably in a typical indie template that makes the familiar all the more poignant and relatable. This balance of the familiar means there’s a delicate tightrope that needs to be walked when dealing with adolescent perception that has a strong chance of becoming either disconnectedly silly or inappropriately mawkish, which this film doesn’t even come close to approaching either. It’s difficult not to get fully lost in enjoyment with all the subtle wit and sharp dialogue that continually resonates through the inventively colorful characters both of the likeable and truly unlikeable variety. The Way, Way Back has an incredibly naturalistic humor and a comfortably authentic execution where it lightheartedly examines the tenderness of youth and the various, unexpected avenues that have the potential for mending those awful growing pains. Despite the film’s reversion into hitting all the expected marks that are required of crowd pleasers it is saved by what matters and that is the detail in the characters, the importance of early adolescent experience, and the nostalgia of looking back making it this summer’s necessary and authentically charming getaway experience. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s immensely pleasurable yet occasionally penetrating The Way, Way Back is most definitely a simple cinematic work but simplicity has its place most often found fittingly deep in our hearts.

Even if a film follows a particular pattern that’s familiar in structure, much like the indie family drama-comedy has adopted, there’s a way to embrace the structure and deliver a freshly vibrant story within the constraints, which is something Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have definitely learned to execute. Both screenwriters are recognizable outside of their screenwriting fame, arguably just starting with a future looking bright, with Faxon being on multiple television shows including the short lived “Ben and Kate” and Rash scene stealing every week on the show “Community” as the effeminate Dean. The Way, Way Back refers to the far back seat of an upper-class station wagon that peers out the back of the car, a perfectly fitting visual for how protagonist Duncan (Liam James) gazes helplessly towards a path that’s already been made for him symbolizing his immobility and loss of control. Duncan is an awkward adolescent lost without a father figure or even one remotely sympathetic ear that we follow on his family’s summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell). In an attempt to escape the unpleasantness of being around his changing mother and her verbally insulting boyfriend, Duncan eventually finds employment at the local waterpark where he finds an unlikely and humorous mentor in Owen (Sam Rockwell), arguably adolescent himself but ultimately sees Duncan as the fine person he’s been told he’s not. It all seems a tad cliché but the inventiveness is in Faxon and Rash’s incredibly thoughtful presentation of colorful characters, sharp dialogue exchanges, humorous scenarios, and heartwarming connections that unfold quite authentically and without any sense of forcefulness. In appropriately balancing the humor of adolescent gawkiness, such as Duncan’s inability to communicate with girls beyond gaping stares or monosyllabic phrases, and the fragility of being young, shown strongly in Duncan’s beaten down facial blankness, The Way, Way Back makes for a predictable yet searing portrait of forging your own identity and the process of finding the family you choose through authentic connection. With the brilliant screenwriting guiding Faxon and Rash who also take a place behind the camera for the first time it’s clear that their understanding of their own material has given their direction from the camerawork to the comedic pacing to the carefully placed moments of dramatic realization a clarity that’s rarely seen in first time directors.


While it’s extremely tough to capture the true vulnerability of young adulthood in a believable and relevant manner through writing it’s even drastically more difficult to capture it authentically on screen without appearing forceful or disingenuous. Perhaps it’s both Faxon and Rash’s experience in front of the camera for many years that has given them a perceptive insight on how to gracefully balance between touching humor and painful drama because in The Way, Way Back they interweave both of these contradictory elements into one complete and entertaining whole. Coming-of-age stories all have their share of awkward humorousness and uncomfortable growing pains shown through the lens of adolescence and Faxon and Rash together utilize their camera simply and ably to make sure their comedic pacing and stinging dramatic deviations hit their marks without being off-putting or inconsistent. Whether it’s the transitioning from uncomfortable dinner sequences to unconventionally rude dialogues to socially inept conversations the film always has a touch of the naturalistic even when some of the scenarios or characters seem drastically unreal. This anchor in reality despite the occasional drifts into the unbelievable is what makes The Way, Way Back such a charming summer escape where Duncan’s initial pains of neglect, divorce, and being tapped into verbal submission makes his inevitable breakthrough such a heartwarming and endearing conclusion. Without the proper sense of pacing and balancing all the funny versus dramatic tonal shifts this film would have flopped in both its entertaining intentions and poignant undercurrents. Though Faxon and Rash’s presentation might have a familiar approach there isn’t really any other way to see it through because having the good sense to take a step back and only allow the camera to be as intrusive as it needs to be is what gives the film its authentic appeal. The direction of films like The Way, Way Back are dependent on performance so taking a simple camera capturing approach and allowing your actors to eat up the scenery is what really brings out the entertaining charm and dramatic connection that this film most definitely has.

Whenever you have a class filled with first rate actors including the names of Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, and Steve Carell you know you’re in for great performances but surprisingly all of these fine actors are only secondary to the central poignant performance from Liam James. Only 16-years old James displays the proper vulnerability, social anxiety, and downtrodden emotions that are essential for The Way, Way Back’s coming-of-age balance between comedic awkwardness and uncomfortable drama. His chemistry with all the other actors, whether it’s the resentment of his mother’s boyfriend Trent or the protégé relationship he has with Owen or the divorce connection he has with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), is impeccable and though he comes off as a passenger in his own story it makes it more impactful when he awakens from his depressed paralysis. It’s refreshing to see Steve Carell in a role that’s so uncomplimentary to his usual charming self because his role as the overbearing boyfriend Trent truly makes you feel sympathetic towards the verbally assaulted and insultingly demeaned Duncan. Rivaling Carell’s unpleasantness is the marvelous Toni Collette as Duncan’s mother who balances emotional fragility and desperation to make things work no matter how wrong they seem with an acting grace that’s all too synonymous with her very name. Two scene stealing performances come from both the wonderful Allison Janney as the hilarious insensitive and trying to be cool mother next door and Sam Rockwell as the blasé yet bitingly sarcastic Water Park owner Owen who really guides the entire film to an emotional whole. Even though some performances will be more memorable than others it’s clear that this entire cast was carefully chosen and every role, from the apathetic Water Park employee Lewis (Jim Rash) to the exhausted Water Park manager Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) serve to propel this charming story forward in an entertaining trajectory. Without these vibrantly written characters in Faxon and Rash’s script and an equally talented cast willing to exaggerate, let loose, and humorously dedicate themselves to each bit then The Way, Way Back wouldn’t have been able to become the nostalgic and humorous summer escape it inevitably becomes.


There is an air of timelessness to The Way, Way Back that similar recent coming-of-age films, including Adventureland, Juno, and Crazy Stupid Love, don’t necessarily have and yet because of its formulaic narrative structure it seems only a tad limited. However, that’s the only negative that can be seen throughout this charmingly tender yet equally painful adolescent comedy-drama because screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written colorful characters coupled with sharp, witty dialogue to fill this predictable structure with freshness. While the film is undeniably lighthearted it still has enough perceptive insight on the social awkwardness and growing vulnerability that is involved in basic adolescence and yet heightened when dramatic variables including divorce, loneliness, and disconnection come into play. The Way, Way Back is at all at once bittersweet because it delicately balances the difficult growth of identity amidst self-esteem challenges and the audience gets to experience each and every humorous, tragic, and challenging moment in Duncan’s humorous development in the summer that’s most important to his character. While the film has the appearance of a simple narrative and a simple style there is much to be admired in its vibrant character tapestry, incredibly witty exchanges, and perceptive contemplation on young adulthood that is immensely complex and heartwarmingly engaging. As summer escapes go The Way, Way Back is by far one of the more essential to experience because it has non-stop humor, sympathetic drama, and a charm that is hard to find in the special effects driven cinema atmosphere today.

Grade: B+

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