Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
Introverted 14 year old Duncan (Liam James) is forced to spend summer with his mother (Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Carell) at Trent’s summer home at a picturesque New England seaside resort. Struggling to fit in with the company of his mum, Trent and all of Trent’s friends he takes a pink bike from the shed and cycles to be as far away from them as possible. One day he cycles to a water park that seems to be still stuck in the 80s and by chance befriends the manager, Owen (Rockwell). Under the wing of Owen he helps out at the summer park and finally finds the belonging that he has always craved, and with that, finally some self confidence.
Ever since the exceptional Little Miss Sunshine came out and won the hearts of audiences and got (thoroughly deserved) Oscar nominations it does seem that every slightly quirky indie film wants to emulate that film’s success. So if that said film involves anyone that was involved in Little Miss Sunshine (whether it is producers or the bloody caterers) they make sure it is plastered all over the poster. Of course The Way Way Back even reunites Steve Carell and Toni Colette from Little Miss Sunshine in what could be argued as a cynical casting move. Naturally everyone looks very happy on the poster suggesting immediately the exact tone of the narrative. So far, everything looking very self aware and unoriginal, and maybe overrated considering the plethora of five star reviews The Way Way Back received on cinema release.
Well, though I would certainly argue that The Way Way Back has plenty of flaws and undoubtedly verges on self aware at times, it is still a genuinely enjoyable comedy/drama that cannot help but tug at all of our slightly nostalgic heartstrings. There are plenty of moments where suspension of disbelief is essential, as these moments are certainly very convenient in terms of the narrative and how they all work out together are often extremely coincidental (almost too much at times). However, thanks to some great performances and an exploration of some universal and familiar themes The Way Way Back is still a film with plenty of heart and subtle laughs.
It is certainly in the first third that The Way Way Back presents many warning signs and risks shooting itself in the foot. Kevin James performance and the script seem to overplay the misery and isolation that Duncan feels, descending into cliché which risks us losing any empathy with the film’s protagonist. While all the seemingly immature adults around him seem more like convenient and slightly lazily written caricatures. However, as the narrative develops it almost feels that the film grows in confidence, giving us a much more rounded and natural feel to both the characters and story.
In terms of the cast, Steve Carell is effectively horrible playing against type, while Toni Collette gives an emotional performance once her character is allowed to actually develop. Likewise, once Duncan starts his arc and grows in confidence he emerges as a much richer and engaging protagonist and likewise Liam James’ performance. However, the star of the show is without a doubt Sam Rockwell: Stealing every scene he is in, he not only gets the best comic lines but the film feels so much more fun when he is around, as well as providing the occasional raw emotion that the film occasionally relies on. The scenes involving Rockwell and his water park co-workers are by far the most fun, and of course that is the point, but they do emphasise how self aware and clichéd other scenes are such as scenes involving the other adults or Duncan’s next door neighbour Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who he of course takes a fancy to.
As the narrative develops there may be very little surprises and though there still continue to be some slightly fantastical moments, there is no denying there is plenty of genuine heart to be found and so many of us will wish we had a friend like Sam Rockwell when we were socially awkward 14 year olds.
Though slightly flawed, self aware and most certainly not Little Miss Sunshine like it seems to want to be, after a somewhat contrived first third The Way Way Back emerges as an enjoyable, heartfelt and uplifting coming of age drama that will leave you with a nostalgic smile on your face.