The Way Way Back belongs in the “crap title, decent film” school of cinema, alongside Pacific Rim. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also star), this is a coming-of-age story about an awkward teenager named Duncan (Liam James). Stuck in a beach house with his mum’s prick of a new boyfriend (Steve Carell), Duncan meets the free-spirited Owen (Sam Rockwell) who takes him under his wing at his water park.
Faxon and Rash, who won an Oscar for their work on the screenplay of The Descendants, bring their warm humour and moments of semi-autobiography to make the script engaging all the way (way) through. In the hands of lesser writers these characters would become annoying, complaining about their relatively blessed lives. But because they’re so nicely written that’s never the case, and we root for these kind, warm people.
James plays Duncan well, capturing the misery and boredom of adolescence, while Carell is sufficiently unpleasant and condescending towards him. As in this summer’s What Maisie Knew, it’s the adults who behave like children, and the children who end up getting hurt. The best thing about this film though is Rockwell, whose energy always manages to lift a film and who brings the right combination of comedy and depth to the role of Owen, the fast-talking man-child from the water park who befriends the miserable Duncan.
With its sun-tinted setting and jangly soundtrack it is perhaps too indie and definitely too slushy, and I’m not just talking about the scenes in the water park. But it’s refreshingly downbeat when it wants to be, even when it makes you smile, which it frequently does. This is a comfortably inoffensive, kind-hearted film which understands that it’s hard to be a teenager, but it’s also hard to be a grown-up. Good luck everyone.