Comedy films aren’t my thing, mainly because I don’t typically find them funny. In fact, I generally try to avoid them, but when you’re a film critic with an opportunity to see an early screening of a film for free, you hop on it, and hop on it I did! With The Way, Way Back, I figured that I at least had Steve Carell to look forward to, an actor whose humor I appreciated on the US version of The Office. I walked into the theater knowing nothing other than who was on the cast list – no trailers, no reviews, no brief synopses – and was pleasantly surprised.
The title of the film refers to the “way, way back” seat of a station wagon, which is where we are first introduced to the main character, Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is a boy trying to fight all of the forces set against him: he’s incredibly socially awkward, his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is forcing him to spend the summer at her boyfriend Trent’s (Steve Carell) summer beach house with his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), who openly hates Duncan, and his father doesn’t want him around. He’s having a miserable time until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an eccentric man who manages a local water park. Duncan soon starts working at the water park, making friends with the other staff members and patrons, but his life at home with his mother and Trent is as miserable as ever as Duncan tries to find his place in the world.
This is one of the only Steve Carell roles I’ve witnessed that actually isn’t funny; his character is rude, selfish, and obnoxious. He fakes his affection for Duncan by “affectionately” (and repetitively) calling him “buddy,” a gesture that at first seems heartfelt but eventually proves itself to be artificial. In fact, Carell’s character as a whole seems to undergo a transformation the further the film progresses. His speech to Duncan at the start of the film seems genuine, but he becomes more and more of the “bad guy” the farther into the film we get. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sam Rockwell as Owen is side-splittingly funny…he makes it seem so effortless! His jokes are often inappropriate for Duncan’s 14-year-old ears, but it’s his honesty and tendency to not talk down to those younger than him that makes him such a genuine character. Owen isn’t only funny, though; he has a few serious moments, with the most poignant one taking place at the end of the film as he stands up for Duncan. Speaking of Duncan, Liam James, an actor who I’ve never heard of before, does a fantastic job. He is inherently likable despite his social awkwardness, and his growth over the course of the film makes you want to celebrate with him. Other cast members, including co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as two employees at the water park, Maya Rudolph as another water park employee, Allison Janney as Trent’s kooky next-door neighbor Betty, and AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter, Susannah, all do a great job of playing likable characters who bring the film both humor and depth.
The film is about Duncan and his coming-of-age, but the moral hits a wider mark: don’t let others change your opinion of yourself or who you want to be. Another lesson that runs parallel with this is to accept others for what and who they are. Owen becomes a mentor and father figure to Duncan, not because he forces his opinions on him or because he pressures him into doing what he doesn’t want to do, but because he treats him as a fellow human being who deserves to be heard. AnnaSophia Robb’s character treats Duncan similarly; though she may seem a little critical of Duncan at first, she realizes that he is who he is, leading to her interacting with him more and the pair becoming friends. Even Duncan’s mother eventually comes around to Duncan’s side, bringing the film to a wonderfully circular end (you’ll understand what I mean when you see the film). Originally a character who sits alone in the “way, way back” of the car, Duncan ends the film as a character with plenty of others on his side, with his position in the “way, way back” of the car carrying a positive connotation rather than the negative one it carried at the start of the film.
This movie is funny throughout, but it seems to me to be more of a drama with comedy splashed in appropriately than a straight-up comedy, which is why I think I liked it so much. All of the characters in the film (well, aside from the “bad guys”) grew on me quite a bit as I watched, with characters whose actions seemed false or forced at the start feeling very natural by the end, making me really care about them. Standout performances from Liam James and especially Sam Rockwell make the movie both amusing and emotional, with Steve Carell bringing a new kind of character (for him) to the table. Overall, The Way, Way Back is an excellent film with admirable morals, and it’s sure to entertain moviegoers of all kinds.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material