The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMud, The Kings of Summer, the final third of The Place Beyond the Pines: This is the season of coming-of-age stories. What sets each one apart is the ability to capture a moment, to portray real life as it actually occurs in all its raw unrelenting confusion. Now we have The Way Way Back and it possibly bests them all. 14-year-old Duncan is on his way to a Cape Cod beach resort with his mom Pam and her boyfriend Trent and Trent’s daughter Steph. We immediately feel ill at ease with a rude exchange during the car ride up between dictatorial Trent and shy Duncan who lacks confidence. Duncan rates himself a six on a scale from 1 to 10. “I think you’re a three,” says the overbearing Trent. But Duncan is soon to embark on an odyssey of sorts. A journey in which he will come to terms with who he is. He’ll confront his own insecurities through the guidance of one idiosyncratic manager at the Water Wizz theme park near the summer home where he’s staying. I seriously thought that name was a pun but apparently there really is a water park with that moniker in Massachusetts.

The Way Way Back is one of the best ensemble casts of 2013. Let’s start with Liam James as Duncan. The adolescent actor doesn’t appear to be fabricating a part. He IS that awkward teen, superbly conveyed through gestures, facial expressions and silence. He is pathetic and likeable at once. Duncan is in direct opposition to his mother’s boyfriend played by Steve Carell. Carell has portrayed the embarrassing buffoon before, but I’d be hard pressed to name a time where he came across as such an unlikable jerk. Their scenes together are a master class of controlled rage as Duncan bites his tongue amidst exchanges that will make you want to sock Steve Carell in the face. Toni Collette is Pam, Duncan’s compassionate, but somewhat naïve mother in love with this inconsiderate man.

The supporting parts are equally revelatory. Blossoming actress AnnaSophia Robb is the girl next door that is anything but a cliché. A pretty blonde beauty, she’s the spitting image of Virginia Madsen 3 decades ago. Surprisingly supportive she takes an unexpected liking to gawky Duncan. Allison Janney in a riveting portrayal, is Betty, her boozy fun loving mom. She absolutely commands the screen with her nonstop inappropriate remarks that seizes the center of attention whenever she is talking. And last but certainly not least is Sam Rockwell as Owen, the employee who hires Duncan at the water park and becomes sort of a mentor to him. He’s treats Duncan like an adult. Based in part on Bill Murray in Meatballs, he’s fast, loose and funny. The role takes advantage of his strengths and exploits them. We even get to see him dance again. Rockwell has always been a favorite of mine, but I dare say this might be the most exhilarating performance I’ve ever seen him give.

I know it’s only July, but is it too early to start talking Academy Awards? The Way Way Back enchants not with action, or special effects. It captivates because it concerns people, authentic people who yearn, hurt, care, and love. The cast is a flawless assemblage of talent, with several noteworthy performances. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are now officially a force to be reckoned with in the world of writers. I thought their screenplay for The Descendents was pretty wonderful. There are similarities, but nothing prepared me for this. They have an admirable understanding how to fashion a riveting story from beginning to end. Perhaps their experiences growing up were similar to Duncan’s. They have captured his adolescence brilliantly. You’ll laugh, cry and cheer at Duncan’s awkward trek. Here they write and make their directorial debut as well. Not only are they exemplary behind the camera, but they even manage to play quirky minor roles. The Way Way Back is a tale about grown ups and children who sometimes assume the manner of the other. It also exemplifies how sometimes just the simple encouragement from a sympathetic adult is all a child needs to thrive. Now who doesn’t like to see that?

28 Responses to “The Way Way Back”

  1. omg i am impossibly excited for this.


  2. Rockwell is awesome in this movie. Great review.


  3. Nice review. I really like the cast and hope to check it out soon.


  4. 5 stars!!!! This is the years”Perks of bring a Wallflower”, for me. True to life story has it all. Great acting, comedy and heartfelt moments. I could see this again and again. Liam, Sam and Alisson stood out as exceptional performances.


  5. Great review, Mark! 4.5 stars is a big deal! Really looking forward to seeing this movie and I hope Sam Rockwell gets his first Oscar nom next year!


  6. Couldn’t agree more Mark! The Way, Way Back is my favorite film so far this year. An amazing coming-of-age story with tremendous performances. It might be my top Rockwell role as well. I wanted to punch Steve Carell’s character too. Can you believe that opening scene is based on a real conversation that Jim Rash had with his own stepfather? I was just speaking with someone yesterday who said that part made her cry because it hit so close to home for her personally. She had a similarly evil stepfather growing up. As a comedy, this film is a total throwback to the great comedies of the 80s. One of those feel-good films that makes you long for summer. I was lucky enough to interview Rash and Faxon about this movie. They’re both super humble and nice, which only adds to my excitement about whatever they do next.


    • I suspected the writers were drawing from personal experience, but I had no idea that scene was based on a real conversation Jim Rash had with his own stepfather. Wow. That guy must’ve been a piece of work. The Descendants, Way Way Back – he and Nat Faxton are on a hot streak! Envious that you got to interview them. 🙂


  7. I keep reading your review over and over again, but I just don’t get what I’m missing. For me this movie was so generic, so formulaic and so cliché that I had a hard time caring about anything that was going on. Aside from Rockwell, the rest of this movie was way, way forgettable.


    • I will never grow tired of great performances from actors that portray genuine people. Cliché? That would discredit any story about an awkward teen.

      On another note, should we stop making romances because we’ve already seen people fall in love before?


      • Much like you did, I loved “Perks of Being a Wallflower” (a proper awkward teen, coming of age movie). That movie contained things that I’ve seen before in other movies as well. BUT, the difference between Perks and The Way Way Back has everything to do with how these familiar coming of age molds were handled. The Way Way Back takes a familiar story and only makes it more predictable.
        And no, I don’t think we should stop making romances. But if you are going to watch a romantic movie, wouldn’t you say that you’d rather see one that isn’t a generic ticking of boxes?


      • But I didn’t think this was generic. The performances were too raw and genuine for me to dismiss. I was emotionally affected by young Duncan’s adventure. Whether we arrive at the same destination as countless other films is irrelevant. It’s not about the destination, it’s all about the journey. Duncan’s odyssey was sincere, poignant and yes, ultimately a happy one. Coming-of-age films are common. One with this much heart is not. A lovely film.


  8. But the journey was generic. And genuine is not a term I would use to describe any part of this movie. I think we have to agree to disagree on this one.


  9. Really look forward to checking this one out.


  10. GaryLee828 Says:

    Ok, this is my unofficial opinion, which ultimately at this point and time before actually viewing for myself holds zero weight, but I am with the other Mark “Markus Robinson” on this going based on the ads I’ve seen for this; this movie looks so predictable and formulated. I am shocked to hear such strong reviews about this! Maybe I will watch someday and be pleasantly surprised.

    I do on one hand like Sam Rockwell a lot, and think his Green Mile performance is one of the greatest in the history of cinema; and while Rockwell has done well in other roles and has a lot of charisma I doubt there’s anyway his role in this comes close to Green Mile. 🙂

    Lasltly, my favorite movie of all-time is “Dumb & Dumber” and I thought it looked horrendous on the ads; so there have been some movies to surprise me. But my brain is having such a hard time processing Mark’s “4 & 1/2” star rating for this film that looks so cliche and typical. What am I missing here? I guess I will have to eventually find out. 🙂


    • Q: What am I missing here?

      A: The entire film. You haven’t seen it! lol

      Go watch the film. Then if you still don’t like it at least we can discern why. But go in with an open mind. If you’re already against it, of course you’ll hate it.


      • GaryLee828 Says:

        Actually that’s not true for me. I can be against a film going in, and still like it if the material is strong. I was against “Dumb & Dumber” going in, but as soon as I started watching it could not stop laughing. I saw that movie 9 times at the theater! lol.

        I know I haven’t seen Way Way Back, but I pride myself in being able to tell if a movie is good or not from the trailer. I am nearly always right. Otherwise I will just go to the theater and watch every new movie and waste time and money b/c the majority of the movies that are released are just too formulated and predictable; it’s like they follow a beat-sheet to the tee – and that’s what the Way Way Back trailer looks like to me…

        Of course if I hear enough people saying a movie is really good, etc. I will give it consideration. That’s what happened with “Silver Linings Playbook” and it was much better than I anticipated.

        But since I can’t afford, nor have the time and energy to watch every new release I have to be able to filter which movies are worth my time and which ones are not…so that’s why I watch a lot of movie trailers and can generally get a pretty accurate idea of what will be good and what won’t. Of course I am not always right – which is why I read reviews from movie bloggers like you! 🙂

        I think of it in terms like this: our brains are always processing information, continually – non stop; but our brains grow bored and tiresome of redundancy. Our brains want to process new information. Movies are information for our brains. Our brains grow bored when it process the same information over and over and over; our brains grow bored processing the same movies over and over; so I look for movies that will send my brain information that it hasn’t grown bored with. Most movies are boring to my brain, therefore are boring to me. What I look for are movie trailers that while watching send information to my brain that it hasn’t already seen many times before.

        That’s why I like films such as “Take Shelter” b/c before I saw that movie my brain had never processed a movie like that; it also keeps my brain riled up after watching b/c it keeps me thinking, as well as processes my emotions.

        That’s why when I saw “The Hidden face” I freaked out b/c as my brain is watching and thinks it is watching one thing it turns out to be something entirely different and that gets my brain tingling, and when my brain is tingling like that then that’s what makes a movie so good.

        Unfortunately, not many new releases get my brain tingling…

        Remember how disappointed we were by “Mama”? B/c our brains wanted to process something new, and intriguing – but instead we got something our brain had already processed many times before.

        Why did we love “The Ring” so much? B/c damn it, that movie gave our brain something new to process! In 2002 we hadn’t see anything like that before.

        Of course since my brain is yet to DL the Way, Way Back it can’t officially determine what it thinks, but when watching the trailer it doesn’t feel like anything my brain hasn’t already processed many times before.

        I can’t actually control what I like or dislike; my brain decides for me. I wanted to love “Skyfall”. In my conscience it was going to be the next great Bond film, but as I watched it and my brain processed it, my brain dictated to me that I hate it. And I do. But when I watched “Casino Royale” my brain was tingling for the entire movie, and my brain told me I loved it…and I do.

        Of course our brain dictates all information to us, etc. but I guess what I mean is I decide if I like a movie through my brain and not my heart.

        For example, Denzel Washington is my favorite actor and I love most of his movies…but I can’t bring myself to watch “Unstoppable” b/c my brain automatically becomes bored when even thinking about it. The same goes for his new movie with Mark Wahlberg “2 Guns”. I can’t see myself going to see that; my brain doesn’t enjoy watching my beloved favorite actor saying lame lines like “Make it rain!” before tossing a lighter over his shoulder.

        This is the problem I have with most mainstream Hollywood movies; b/c they adhere to the same formula, my brain never feels like it processes anything new…

        All I want are some films to make my brain tingle. 🙂

        *Sorry for the length of this. Didn’t mean to write an entry on your board. lol.


  11. this is a difficult film to discuss.

    but am giving this film 2 1/2 stars.

    First, the lead actor Liam James either didn’t fit the part enough or his character didn’t earn enough of our sympathy.

    Now not to be insensitive to his family problems, but overall, he was having a fun vacation wasn’t he? for example, he’s working at a swim park, made a new friend(Owen), and had a beautiful girl who showed interest in him.

    Second, the setting is so attractive that it draws attention/distracts us from the drama. This is an issue i had with the Descendants as well.

    Third, why Steve Carrell to play an abusive dad? his performance was good but he is still Steve Carrell, the comedian.

    Its not easy to discuss this film, because it has a style of its own, where it doesn’t get too heavy handed about is narrative. But when it comes to a story about a boy with low self esteem, and who builds it through a friendship, i think you might agree that “About a Boy” is a much better film.


    • It’s interesting that sometimes a human being can be experiencing extreme unhappiness despite what seems like a picture life on the outside.

      It remains one of my favorite films of 2013, brilliantly balancing pathos and humor in its emotional narrative.


  12. Somehow I got connected to the name of this movie and reading your review of it made me watch this today Oh my God it’s such a gem, I love it. First seeing it now 6 years after it came out. Thank you Mark your reviews are impeccable and essential.

    Liked by 1 person

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