Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Liam James Runtime: 103 min Rating: PG
These days, coming-of-age films seem to be as prevalent within the summer movie scene as big-budget action blockbusters. The stories are often similar: a young, misunderstood adolescent finds him-or-herself spending their summer vacation in an unfamiliar town that appears miserable until they discover the hidden magic within the place. The Way, Way Back may follow this formula, but it stands apart by depicting realistic problems from the point of view of a kid, and taking them seriously, while a talented young actor endears himself to the audience. As the young protagonist grows and learns how to let loose and have fun, the audience is able to enjoy themselves right along with him.
This story follows Duncan (Liam James), a shy and somewhat awkward fourteen-year-old who is forced to spend his summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her verbally abusive boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) at Trent’s summer beach house. Duncan finds refuge working at the local waterpark, where he befriends free-spirited park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) who helps him gain confidence and come out of his shell.
James presents a sweet and likable protagonist for whom it is easy to cheer. The film captures Duncan’s point of view, often literally, as the audience views the world through his eyes. We experience the cruelty of Trent and the discomfort of a family dinner along with Duncan, creating a bond with this character, so that when he befriends Susanna, the pretty girl next door, we experience his excitement as well. The two are brought together through similar family situations, and their relationship is believable and, refreshingly, age-appropriate. Such a bond with the protagonist is crucial within a film that relies heavily on audience empathy; we have to care about him, and fortunately, here we do.
Suzanna accurately refers to the beach house as “spring break for adults,” and as the parents around him insist on acting like children, Duncan matures and learns how to occupy the role of adult himself. It is no wonder that Duncan lacks confidence, as his mother is unable to stand up to Trent and set an example for her son. Several adults in the film, such as Suzanna’s perpetually tipsy mother (Allison Janney) and Duncan’s friend Owen, straddle the fine line between fun-loving and annoying. However, because these characters are so obviously well-meaning, they can usually be forgiven of these flaws. Quirky, lovable individuals are abundant at the waterpark, adding to the good feeling that surrounds the film.
When juxtaposed against the loving actions of these characters, Trent’s treatment of Duncan appears all the worse. Nobody likes to see a good kid get verbally abused by an adult, especially when said kid is already shy and introverted. Watching Duncan come out of his shell, learn to have fun, and begin to stand up for himself is therefore highly rewarding. The film uses gentle humour to keep a smile on the audience’s face, even as they watch a tough struggle with very real problems. A relatable and likable protagonist promotes full interaction with the film, as the audience not only roots for Duncan but also grows along with him. Ultimately, we celebrate his achievements, and learn to have a good time as well, resulting in a highly successful and fun family film.