Coming-of-age movies, somewhat ironically, seem to be a rite of passage for many filmmakers. There’s something about the awkwardness of youth, dealing with embarrassing parents and the prospect of first love that is catnip for writers and directors early in their career.
The latest to mine that subject matter are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won an Oscar for writing The Descendants; they make their directorial debut with The Way, Way Back. Their protagonist is Duncan (Liam James), a teenager who’s forced spend the summer in a small beach town with his his mother, Pam (Toni Collette); her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell); and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin).
The idea that a 14-year-old wouldn’t relish the chance to spend summer at the beach comes off as more than a bit strange.
That wouldn’t seem to be that horrible of a fate, but when you’re painfully shy, your mom seems to be off in her own world and her boyfriend tends to belittle you at every turn, it can feel like a prison sentence.
Duncan finds a bit of salvation at the local water park, where the manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), takes pity on him. Owen hires Duncan for temporary summer work while simultaneously taking him under his wing. And because any good coming-of-age story wouldn’t be complete without a fledgling romance, Duncan develops a hesitant flirtation with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the girl next door.
The way the film is set up, it’s both easy to sympathize with Duncan and hard to understand why exactly he’s so sullen. His family life isn’t perfect, but it’s far from horrendous. And the idea that an otherwise normal 14-year-old wouldn’t relish the chance to spend the summer at the beach comes off as more than a bit strange.
But once the story allows him to open up, the film takes a turn for the better as well. Owen, a man who refuses to grow up, is pretty much the perfect companion for a kid looking to break out of his shell. Rockwell’s rat-a-tat delivery and laid-back demeanor make him a perfect fit for the character.
James is good as Duncan, but the strong supporting cast around him helps immensely. Aside from Rockwell, Robb, Carell, Collette, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph, Faxon and Rash all deliver great moments, elevating James’ work in the process.
It’s not the finest example of a coming-of-age work in movie history, but The Way, Way Back is a nice change of pace during summer blockbuster season. If nothing else, it’ll have you longing to spend your summer at the beach.