The first truly great summer movie has arrived today with the opening of The Way, Way Back, a delightful picture that adults and teenagers alike are sure to love. Co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, (who also penned The Descendants), in their directorial debut, have made a sweet, charming, funny film that is destined to become a coming-of-age genre classic.
Shot on location around the Massachusetts south shore and taking place near the 4th of July (hence its timely release date), the film beautifully and accurately captures the long, languid days of a hot coastal summer, where, especially for young teens out of school, the days seem infinite, filled with endless possibilities. You can almost feel the warm evening breeze on your cheek, the hot sand beneath your feet, smell the salty ocean air and grilled burgers, and hear the crickets chirping as the sun sets, and a mild, clear, moonlit evening begins.
Of course, such long days can be a burden if you’re an unhappy kid, like Duncan (Liam James), the film’s 14-year-old protagonist. As the film begins, he’s with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette, quietly complex), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), heading from upstate New York to spend the summer at Trent’s beach house in coastal Massachusetts. The conflict between Duncan and Trent is established immediately, as Duncan resents the forced vacation (he’d rather spend the summer in San Diego with his Dad), and Trent is not exactly a warm and fuzzy father-figure type. Whether Trent’s hostility stems from subconscious jealousy of Duncan’s relationship with Pam or just plain coldness is unclear, but Steve Carell, cast against type, nails the role of Trent brilliantly, creating a slick, arrogant, appalling character that film-goers won’t soon forget.
Once this makeshift “family” (as Trent keeps insisting they are) arrives at the Riptide (the name tacked on a piece of driftwood on Trent’s house, in an inspired bit of set decoration), Duncan escapes his misery by exploring the town, and luckily meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an irreverent manager at Water Wizz, a local water park (Water Wizz actually exists, by the way – the movie Grown Ups also filmed some scenes there). How Owen’s kindness toward Duncan affects Duncan and his relationships with Trent, Pam, and Susanna, the pretty neighbor girl, comprise the heart of the film, and the story unfolds honestly and engagingly.
Aside from the sharp, funny script, the film’s other strengths come from its marvelous performances. Sam Rockwell, especially, is the kind of big-brother mentor every 14-year-old boy would kill to have. He’s constantly joking and playful and rarely serious (much to the chagrin of Caitlyn, a funny and exasperated Maya Rudolph), his frustrated boss at Water Wizz, but Owen’s surface banter masks deeper feelings and a truly empathetic soul, which is what makes him able to reach out to troubled Duncan, who desperately needs someone like that in his life.
In another stand out performance, Allison Janney steals nearly every scene she’s in with her portrayal of Betty, a brash, hard-partying divorced mother of three, prone to making wildly inappropriate comments to her friends, her children, and complete strangers. In smaller roles, AnnaSophia Robb (as Betty’s daughter, and Duncan’s crush Susanna, and a dead ringer for a younger, healthier, Lindsay Lohan), Amanda Peet (as one half of a couple who Trent’s known for years), and writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash themselves, making cameo appearances as Water Wizz employees, all bring various levels of humor, depth, and complexity to their characters, which speaks both to their acting skills and to the sure-handed direction they received from Faxon and Rash.
And there aren’t enough words of praise for young Liam James (a regular on TV’s The Killing), who deftly captures the volatile ups and downs, insecurities, and uncertainty of adolescence. You’ll find yourself rooting for this kid from the opening scene, and your affection for him will only increase exponentially by the end of the film. The past year has seen some terrific performances by young adults in films (Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Tye Sheridan in Mud, and Tom Holland in The Impossible) and now Liam James here. The future of cinema looks bright indeed with the careers of these young people to follow.
The Way, Way Back has been well received at film festivals earlier this year; such acclaim is understandable. It won the Audience Award at the Newport Beach International Film Festival, and was one of the biggest buys to come out of Sundance. Rarely does a word like “special” come to mind after seeing a film, but that’s exactly the word that popped into my head when I walked out of the theater after this screening. This film is up there with – and perhaps even better than – films like Summer of ’42, Rushmore, The Squid and The Whale, and, most recently, Mud, which all expertly explore the nuances and pain of the slow journey from youth to adulthood in the face of puzzling and not always model adult behavior. Faxon and Rash’s entry into this canon definitely should not be at the back of this list, but at the way, way front.
The Way, Way Back opens in Bay Area theaters today.