Directed by: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Premise: A fourteen year old boy (Liam James) goes on vacation with his mother (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend (Steve Carell) and the boyfriend’s daughter (Zoe Levin). In order to get away from his family, the teen takes a job at a local waterpark.
What Works: The Way Way Back is a fun coming of age story. Although much about it is familiar from other movies, The Way Way Back is distinguished by a cast that delivers uniformly strong performances. Liam James is cast in the lead as a friendless young man with no self-esteem who gradually transforms into his own man and the actor is terrific in the role. The film requires James to emote an impressive range from mouth breathing indifference to high strung teenage angst to mature confidence and the character’s transformation over the course of the story is nicely handled by the actor. Toni Collette is cast as his mother and she also contributes a lot to the movie with subtle touches that reveal the inner-conflicts she harbors over the compromises that she has made. Steve Carell is cast against type, playing an obnoxious tool of a boyfriend, and Carell does this surprisingly well. Allison Janney plays the alcoholic neighbor and she punches up every scene she is in with her energy and humor. AnnaSophia Robb is underutilized, fulfilling the function of a female love interest, but Robb is able to transcend the parameters of the role. The waterpark is populated by a colorful cast of characters, including Sam Rockwell as a fast-talking supervisor who takes the young protagonist under his wing. The interaction between James and Rockwell’s characters is a nice counterpoint to the scenes between the teenager and his family and the movie provides some lightweight philosophizing that is amusing even if it is cliché. And that ends up being the defining feature of this movie. Everything about The Way Way Back is easy to take. The movie is funny with lightweight drama tying it together and although it is never too challenging the lightness of tone and amusing characters make this film a really enjoyable watch.
What Doesn’t: The Way Way Back’s light touch also works against it. The movie hits all the feel-good beats of the coming-of-age story but it lacks concrete moments for Liam James’ character to demonstrate his maturity. The actor does a nice job gauging his performance from the beginning of the picture to the end but the story needs more decisive examples of his transition. The sparse plotting is reflected in the movie’s incongruities and in retrospect there is a lot in The Way Way Back that does not make much sense. For one, Liam James’ character takes a job at the waterpark in secret and when his family asks where he spends his days he is able to get away with just ignoring the question; apparently, it never occurs to any of his family members to follow up and find out how he spends his days. There is also a credibility problem with his hiring at the waterpark. He gets a paycheck apparently without submitting any paperwork and being that he is fourteen years old the only way he could work there is with special workplace exemptions but all those practical matters are ignored. None of these flaws sink The Way Way Back but the gradual accumulation of implausibilities works against the credibility of the movie. What hurts The Way Way Back most is its familiarity.This film evokes a lot of summer vacation stories like Meatballs, Little Miss Sunshine, and Adventureland, but the recalls are sometimes too familiar and nothing is distinct. No one is as memorable as Bill Murray’s character from Meatballs and none of the set pieces are as painfully funny as the finale of Little Miss Sunshine.
Bottom Line: Like the movies it draws from, The Way Way Back is one of those offbeat comedic-dramas that leaves the viewer with a good feeling. It’s all very familiar and as a story about growing up the picture falls a little short but The Way Way Back is a lot of fun and a very satisfying piece of entertainment.
Episode: #451 (August 11, 2013)