The coming-of-age film is emotional low-hanging fruit, using the audience’s recollection of their own awkward youth as a shortcut in lieu of crafting something more genuine. What makes a movie like The Way, Way Back so thrilling is the emotional specificity to what co-writer/co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash create here: a genuine backstory which informs who our protagonist is at the outset while simultaneously providing the impetus for change. It’s the rare coming-of-age that’s legitimately earned instead of fulfilling genre convention.
Faxon and Rash almost do too fine of a job establishing Duncan’s (Liam James) summer misery. A cringe-worthy opening scene with Steve Carell’s miserable boyfriend character Trent informing Duncan of his shortcomings while demanding he doesn’t ruin this seasonal getaway with Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) set the table for a first act rife with moments of supreme awkwardness. Luckily we’re introduced to the perennially sauced neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and her children Peter and Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), whose crass behavior brings levity to an opening sequence that could’ve otherwise been likened to a psychological stations of the cross.
It’s when Duncan discovers Water Wizz water park in his efforts to avoid his home life and slowly strikes up a friendship with its proprietor Owen (Sam Rockwell) that the film truly takes off. If you love Sam Rockwell this film is heaven sent: His ability to convey pathos and affection even while perpetuating a screwball-paced wisecracking facade is truly something to behold. If such a magnetic performance wasn’t at the center of Duncan’s home away from home, his journey wouldn’t be nearly as believable as it turns out to be.
And as great as Rockwell proves to be, Liam James is a revelation as our young protagonist. He creates such an achingly genuine portrait of youthful awkwardness at the film’s outset, fully inhabiting this character whose been so far beaten down by his life experience that simple verbal exchange prove beyond his grasp, that his journey toward self-expression feels wholly earned. It’s a performance so understated it might slip through the cracks in the face of Rockwell’s buoyant charisma. (James even slowly changes Duncan’s posture as his character becomes more equipped to face the world.) But it anchors the movie and provides the tender heart at its center. Carell plays way against type as the emotionally abusive sleaze-ball boyfriend, and Colette works wonders with the thankless role of the mother desperately clinging to any bit of normalcy she can find in the wake of her recent divorce. Performances from Maya Rudolph, Rob Cordry, Amanda Peet and AnnaSophia Robb (as well as brief turns from Faxon and Rash) all supplement the leads and create beautiful cinematic ecosystem allowing the young life at our film’s center to flourish.
Faxon and Rash’s screenplay balances the comedy and pathos well, waiting until the very last moment to give its protagonist a release for all the pent-up pressure generated in the first act, giving the audience a very real sense of relief alongside Duncan as he begins his journey towards adulthood. There’s a deceptive beauty to the idea the film puts forth that the world will embrace and not reject you if you’re only willing to open yourself up to it. And as first-time directors, Rash and Faxon prove adroit at managing the films tonal shifts and giving their ever-talented performers room to work their magic, even if the film proves visually indistinct. Hot off the heels of their Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants, The Way, Way Back proves that Rash and Faxon are no one-hit wonders, and will be providing theatergoers with entertainment that earns its emotional catharsis without providing pat conclusions for years to come.