The Way Way Back plays out just as you would expect, failing to break from its formulated structure.
The Way Way Back
From the Oscar winning minds behind the story of The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring a similar family oriented film that aspires to be a charming crowd-pleaser, but ends up with the same underwhelming results. The Way Way Back features a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who feels like an outsider wherever he goes, including his own house. There are some satisfying qualities and charm found in the film (mostly from Sam Rockwell) but The Way Way Back plays out just as you would expect, failing to break from its formulated structure.
For most people spending the entire summer at a beach house out in Cape Cod sounds delightful, but for 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) that is not the case. That is because Duncan is an introverted teenager who is forced to put up with his mother’s (Toni Collette) overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), a man who is constantly trying too hard to act like a father figure towards Duncan but ends up being much more condescending than affectionate. Duncan cannot catch a break even when an opportune situation presents itself as their neighbor just so happens to be a good looking girl his age, but his shy awkwardness still gets the best of him.
With seemingly nowhere else to go, Duncan manages to escape off to a nearby Water Wizz waterpark after running into the boisterous manager of the park, Owen (Sam Rockwell). Their friendship takes off with minimal effort (or much interest) from Duncan as Owen seems very eager to take him under his wing for no reason other than he is bored. This is where The Way Way Back begins to get good as Owen’s 100 mile-per-hour wise cracks energizes the picture and subsequently loosens up Duncan’s boarded up personality.
While Liam James plays the awkward side of his always-slouching and timid character spot-on, he is much less convincing when his role calls for him to show a bit of confidence. Though he is not totally to blame, the script has a few cringe-worthy moments such as a completely overengineered dance routine involving James that would even make Napoleon Dynamite shake his head. And there are multiple times where the film forces him to dance.
Meanwhile, Rockwell completely steals the show with his sarcastic lines and give-no-shit attitude. Even though he is supposed to be more of a supporting character, he is so good that he becomes the best asset of the film. In fact, all of the smaller roles were more redeeming than many of the leads. Faxon makes a hilarious appearance as a lifeguard who knows how take advantage of his powers at the park. And Rash channels his inner Kip (yes, another Napoleon Dynamite reference) which makes for an entertaining sidekick.
If there is one thing The Way Way Back does well it is making the story feel relatable, unfortunately it does so by sporting an all-too-familiar backdrop of characters, circumstances, and outcomes. Granted, this coming-of-age tale is not aiming to be wholly original, but in the end the film only plays to half of its strengths. The Way Way Back does generate a fair amount of laughs throughout the film, but misses on the emotional level because of the underplayed drama between mother and son—a shame because Collette’s character had real potential to be more than just a naïve mother who is content with looking the other way for everything in life.