It used to be that you couldn’t throw a rock in a video store without hitting a coming-of-age movie. The saying is still true but now you’d be throwing a rock at a Redbox which is easier to do but less satisfying somehow. There’s hundreds of “teenage boys trying to figure out life movies” so what separates The Way Way Back from the anonymous herd? The answer is Sam Rockwell.
The Way Way Back stars Liam James as Duncan who is summer vacationing with his mom (Toni Colette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Maybe I didn’t grow up in the right area or in the right income level, but it has always baffled me how a family will vacation for the entire summer. Nevertheless, Duncan’s future step-dad proves to be an amazing jerk within the first five minutes of the movie. They arrive at their summer home and he is introduced to the wildly grating next door neighbor played by Alison Janney. Old friends of Trent’s arrive and soon Duncan finds himself surrounded by caricatures. The early scenes mean to play up the fact that Duncan is shy, withdrawn, and socially awkward, but if I found myself surrounded by these people I would be the same way.
The fun begins when Duncan catches the interest of the manager of a water park played by Sam Rockwell. The always under appreciated Rockwell is hilarious without being over the top and brings a liveliness to the movie that is sorely lacking elsewhere. There is no life to the other characters. They are one-note at best and Duncan’s family members are off-putting to say the least. The scenes of Duncan’s home life are unnecessarily dour. I understand that they are meant to be juxtaposed with the fun scenes at the water park, but there is no need for the brutally awkward family time. Not every moment of a kid’s home life can be awkward, even for an awkward kid. The scenes that don’t take place at the water park feel like they’ve had the life sucked out of them and downgrade what could have been a really good film. The water park scenes are pretty great though. Duncan learns to navigate life during his time at the water park and slowly comes out of his shell. You could even say that he comes-of-age in this touching coming-of-age film. I’m not sure that I was ever touched during the runtime but the fine folks at Fox Searchlight would like you to believe that you could be touched by this story. I suppose it’s possible. If this is your first coming-of-age movie you will likely be touched. If not, all bets are off.