The Way, Way Back (2013) – Review

“From the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine…“.  Well, that’s good, because I loved Little Miss Sunshine.  To be honest I’m a bit of sucker for these touching indie comedy/dramas.  The Descendants (written by our Way, Way Back writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) was one of my favourite films of 2011.  Stuck In Love., from earlier this year, is one of my favourite films of this year, and aforementioned Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favourite films of all time.  There’s a pattern there, clearly.  It’s a genre I just warm to.  Something about their simplicity and down-to-earth nature, the telling of real stories and real characters in real settings provides such satisfying arcs, and it’s something I aspire to as a writer.

The Way, Way Back brings us into the world of Duncan, a shy, awkward, slightly oppressed young boy struggling to find happiness with his new family, played wonderfully by the young actor Liam James with the perfect mix of awkward but cool; he’s totally sympathetic and completely lovable.  His mother’s new boyfriend, Trent, is a jerk – played marvelously against type by an unusually bearded and ripped Steve Carell – who masquerades as a character-building type who’s trying to improve Duncan, but in reality just berates and puts him down at every turn, and whom Duncan knows is always trying to embarrass him.  We open with the scene that opened all the trailers: Trent asking Duncan what he rates himself out of ten, before offering a rating himself; an insulting, spirit-destroying three.  If you want to know how to set-up a character quickly without any fuss, look no further than here.  Within one minute of the film starting, Trent is one of the biggest assholes we’ve ever known, and Duncan is one of the most sympathetic protagonists.

The vehement attributes of their relationship being cemented so early on is essential in building the future relationship between Duncan and Owen, as it acts as a sort of catalytic bridge to everything Duncan is looking for in not just a father, but a friend.  Sam Rockwell is fantastic.  Really fantastic.  He’s impressed me in everything he’s done and sure enough it’s no different here.  He brings such energy and charisma to every frame, filling the audience with the same sense of inspiration and awe that Duncan so clearly feels.  Being the two standout performances of the film, the scenes with he and Duncan together sparkle and shine.

Rash and Faxon’s film taps into the often tremulous and arduous trials of childhood expertly.  It brings to fruition that feeling that you don’t fit it, that you can’t speak your mind, that everyone’s laughing at you, and plays on the smallest childhood embarrassments like having to wear a bulky, stupid-looking life jacket when no-one else does.  I imagine we’ve all felt similar at one point or another.  It even plays on the excruciating awkwardness that seems so defectively inherent with board games, using it as a device to break down the relationships once and for all.  They’re supposed to be harmless fun for the family, and often they are, but we’ve all experienced the awkward heat when playing with the wrong people.  There’s distinctly nothing less fun than that very moment, and it can, as silly as it sounds, break relationships (at least for a while).

What ultimately wins us over in The Way, Way Back is its believability.  We don’t just watch Duncan’s frustration, we feel it, like Pacino in Serpico when he smashes up the office, and it’s often excruciating.  Furthermore, as the bond forms between Duncan and Owen, we really feel a part of it rather than mere onlookers – explicitly because we were instantly so connected and sympathetic towards Duncan, and so won over by Owen’s guardian-like charm.  Credit to the marvellous writing, bringing us characters we know and care about (or don’t care about in Trent and his daughter’s case) and delivering a story that plays so skilfully, and at times, reverently, on the childhood experience.

A really touching, funny and emotive little drama that wins us over in one minute and doesn’t stop for the next hundred.  Leaving us completely and totally satisfied without feeling the need to wrap things up in too perfect a bundle, The Way, Way Back is an often surprising, wonderfully inspiring and really quite beautiful film.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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