Sam Rockwell steals the show in this warm, funny, coming-of-age tale.
Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and going through a rough patch. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette) has started seeing Trent (Steve Carrell), who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a douche-bag. The threesome, accompanied by Trent’s obnoxious daughter Steph, head to Trent’s family beach house allegedly for a summer of fun and bonding. Duncan, however, would much rather be moving in with his absent father. On the way to the beach house Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to ten. After pushing for some time Duncan says “I don’t know. A six?” to which Trent replies emphatically “You’re a 3”. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, with Duncan constantly being left out or left behind by his now extended family, his life being shaped by benign neglect. To make matters worse the summer resort seems to bring out the worst in his mother and her friends, with Duncan’s neighbour and subsequent love interest, Susanna, noting it was like “spring break for adults”.
A glimmer of hope comes for Duncan when he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the splendidly kitsch Water Wizz Park. Owen takes him on as an employee, allowing Duncan a much needed escape from his insane summer-home life and an opportunity for him to blossom.
Two excellent comic turns from Allison Janney, as Susanna’s splendidly loopy, perma-drunk mother and Sam Rockwell as the wise-cracking, Peter Pan-esque water park manager Owen (who firmly steals every scene he is in), elevate this above the run of the mill. In fact, the whole cast are brilliant. Liam James plays Duncan with quiet reserve, a boy who has something to say but just chooses not to say it, never making him seem petulant or needy. Steve Carrell is fabulously horrible as Trent, taking on the classic evil step-parent role, but doing it with enough charm that you could see what Duncan’s mother might see in him. Toni Collette is excellent as always as Duncan’s mother Pam, as she battles with the varying demands of her son and her new partner.
Ultimately the film is as much about adults growing up as it is teenagers. While it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of topic, the cast, together with some brilliantly observed writing by Faxon and Rash (who both also star in the film as Water Wizz employees) mean that The Way, Way Back still feels fresh and original.
The Way, Way back is a funny, charming and warm look at family dysfunction and growing-up, (in all senses of the phrase) which should sit well with adults, teens and pre-teens alike.