Duncan is stuck, with no way out. He's off on a summer beach vacation with his mother, her new asshole of a boyfriend, and his daughter. Spending time with this über-dysfunctional family seems like a nightmare to him. But where could he escape to?
Just when Duncan thinks he's in for the tumultuous summer from hell, he meets Owen, who happens to be the incompetent manager of a water park. Owen takes Duncan under his wing and employs him at the park, and Duncan discovers a place of his own.
Although best described as a comedy, 'The Way Way Back' is really much more. It's a look at the world through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy, who has seen and experienced a great deal of hurt in his short lifetime. The humour in this movie is derived from the mundane events of everyday life, and as such, you may find yourself laughing at some of the more inappropriate points of this film; in the same respect, the moments of sorrow also come from these same ordinary situations.
It's awfully hard not to cheer on Duncan. He's an awkward teenager with underdeveloped social skills, and a child of divorce. He's clearly acquired the attitudes of his passive mother (Toni Collette), both of them letting things slide and allowing people walk all over them. Yet being an underdog in this situation allows writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash the best possible character - he has the most room to grow, and the greatest opportunity for genuinely funny and touching moments.
Liam James scores high fives on both accounts. His portrayal of Duncan steers clear of the broody teenager with angst, instead choosing to bring real pain and suffering to this role. Initially, Duncan wears the weight of the world on his shoulders, exposed to unpleasant situations and brutal life lessons. His gradual assertion (with the help of Owen, played by Sam Rockwell) sees him find happiness, along with people he can relate to.
Here, we once again see Toni Collette in the role of the mum - perhaps not as fun as her 'United States of Tara' personas, yet fitting the role like a glove. Steve Carell as her boyfriend plays a despicable excuse for a human being - undoubtedly one of his best roles on screen since 'Crazy, Stupid, Love', possibly ever.
Although best described as a comedy, 'The Way Way Back' is really much more.
But it's the loud, obnoxious Americans who win the most laughs here. Early scenes with Allison Janney as Betty, the next-door neighbour who's fallen off the wagon yet again, and her slew of commentary as the family arrives is simply hilarious. Then there's Sam Rockwell, whose fast wit, lame jokes and constant onslaught of dialogue see him having great fun as Owen.
Integral to the story is Duncan and Owen's relationship, and the two actors gel together perfectly. They're opposites in every way imaginable - Duncan's shy teenager who is constantly concerned about his mother juxtaposes nicely with Owen's outlandishly irresponsible water park owner, existing in a Neverland-like world of his own. Most importantly, their relationship is osmotic - the adult who must learn to grow up, and the child who has to learn to live a little. Fortunately, both are able to pull this off by the end of the movie.
'The Way Way Back' is a stark look at life. Humour and sadness are found in everyday moments, and are often not mutually exclusive. The film is a journey of discovery, but not everyone has something to learn from change. I found an affinity with the truth of this film, and the realisation that the most ordinary times are the most important.
‘The Way Way Back’ is playing at the Sydney Film Festival on Thursday 6th June at 9:30pm and Monday 10th June at 4:15pm. Click here for more reviews on the 2013 Sydney Film Festival.