Duncan (Liam James) is a shy 14 year old brought on holiday with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carrell) and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Neither a child nor an adult, Duncan is desperate to find a place where he belongs, and makes an unexpected friend in the manager of a water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell).
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – writer and directors of The Way Way Back – previously brought us the gorgeous and moving The Descendants, for which they won the Best Screenplay Oscar. The good news is that with The Way Way Back, they have done it again.
The Way Way Back could easily have turned into a drama about the relationship between the adults in the film, or indeed Duncan finding his first love, but by focusing instead on a young man seeking the father figure he has lost and the friendship he needs, the darker plotlines are allowed to revolve around Duncan, but the centre of the story is a gentle coming of age tale.
Liam James is endearing and relatable as Duncan, but the real hero of the piece is man-child Owen, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell throws himself into the role and is not only a character that people in the film are drawn to, but also is the character around which the film revolves. Rockwell is hilariously funny, creating bits and elaborate lies to keep the younger patrons of the water park entertained, but he is also warm and sweet. The relationship between Owen and Duncan is the focus of the film, and it is through this friendship that Duncan gets to triumph over his awkwardness and his isolation.
The world of the film is filled with people we all know; Rockwell takes the role of older friend and mentor whose relationships with people his own age are shaky, but who gives great advice to teenagers, Toni Collette as Pam is the mother who doesn’t know whether to let her child go or keep him under her wing as she struggles to come to grips with her own life, the interloper – in this case, Steve Carrell as Trent – who struggles to create a bond with Duncan, Allison Janney as the hilarious drunken neighbour… All of these characters combine to round out Duncan’s world, and not only do they sharpen the character’s view of life, but they help him to realise that not everything is black and white.
Rash and Naxon have created a film that is filled with warmth, and tinted with nostalgia. The crummy water park helps to reinforce the notion that this film could take place in any of our childhoods, as do the familiar characters and the warmth of the world created. The strongest point of the film is Rockwell’s performance as Owen, but this would not have worked if the supporting cast were not willing to allow him to take to the fore. This is Duncan’s story and we see Owen through his eyes, as a role model and friend. Just as George Clooney held The Descendants together, Rockwell does the same here. The film feels personal and cathartic for the creative duo, and both take on great acting roles within the film.
The Way Way Back is a warm, moving and relatable film about that one summer that changes your teenage life. Liam James does a beautiful job as a young teenager struggling to find his confidence and where he belongs in the world, and Rockwell has rarely been better as the young man’s inspiration and friend. Rash and Naxon have tinted the film with nostalgia, a move that works strongly in their favour, leaving The Way Way Back feeling like an cosy indie hug from your childhood.