“You just surprised me”
Fresh off their Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Descendants, writing duo Jim Rash and Nat Faxon return with a wholly original work to serve as their directorial debut. Well, original in the sense they created it without any previous material to jump off from besides a century plus worth of cinematic coming-of-age tales. The honest truth: The Way, Way Back will seem very, very familiar. But this is a fact that helps audiences realize how good it is. Like what Greg Mottola‘s Adventureland did for high school graduates in its 1987 setting, funnymen Rash and Faxon have tapped into the same kind of universal themes every outsider fourteen-year old experiences in our contemporary world of high divorce rate and rampant insecurity. The introverted boy will escape his shell and become a man by its end.
And by man I mean popular awkward kid who’s self-deprecating and sensitive enough to both earn a kiss from the one cute girl vacationing on the same lake as he who isn’t a vapidly cliquish brat and the self-esteem to finally stand up for himself to the latest jerk his mother is too scared to kick to the curb. It is a PG-13 flick about young underclassmen, after all. Alongside some swearing, the only sexualized bits come from parents aptly described as enjoying “adult spring break” in the backyard of their summer retreats. This is ultimately a family-friendly film whose juxtaposition of mature themes as seen through the eyes of the not-so-young anymore against the emotional weight of isolation and feelings of being unwanted outshine any parent’s adversity to a stray f-bomb to help their kids know they aren’t alone.
Even lead character Duncan (Liam James) discovers this fact out once he begins to understand how similar his summer neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is despite her looks and initial cool kid mystique. She would rather be spending this time with her father just like him instead of wasting time on a beach while the grown-ups act like juvenile delinquents staying up all night drinking and smoking pot. Where she has become used to this life, however, it’s Duncan’s first experience now that his mom Pam (Toni Collette) has begun to get serious with boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Unable to watch the woman she has become in order to keep this deceivingly charming—but really pedantically selfish prick—happy, he only needs to find an unused pink and streamered bike to pedal away.
His travels eventually lead him to the one local establishment that appears able to let a boy his age have fun—Water Whizz. A couple contrived meetings with park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) previously have already put him along this path, but it isn’t until he sneaks into the employee entrance and projects his sad-sack aura that things start to turnaround. Owen becomes his Peter Pan, a man refusing to grow up who introduces a little thing called humor into Duncan’s repertoire as well as a genuine appreciation for the boy’s humanity. He pokes fun at the kid’s inability to grasp sarcasm in an almost clinically depressed way, but also finds that tiny opening to break him out of a funk no father figure has ever attempted to accomplish due to thinking it too daunting a task.
Rash and Faxon include all the tropes this type of film can’t help but possess from the out-of-his-league girl finding a curiosity in the boy; the annoying drunk (a fantastic as always Allison Janney) proving to be the only authentic adult in the mix; the even more on the fringe than our lead compatriot (a lazy-eyed, Star Wars “action figure” playing River Alexander); and the too-good-to-even-bother potential step sister (Zoe Levin) who is just as troubled underneath her cold façade. The thing about these clichés, however, is that none ever become bigger than the story itself. Each a crucial part in Duncan’s evolution, they’re always seen through his perspective. The Way, Way Back’s beauty is its ability to never forget its true purpose is portraying the boy amidst the chaos.
We infer everything happening with the adults just as Duncan does because we only catch the snippets occurring while he’s around. Is Trent having an affair with Joan (Amanda Peet)? What are they all doing when they run giggling onto the beach, for all intents and purposes forgetting the children even exist? We feel their indifference towards the boy as intensely as he does and conversely accept the warmth he finds at Water Whizz that much more potent. Owen, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Lewis, and Roddy (cameos from Rash and Faxon respectively) bring Duncan into their little community to show him what true compassion and friendship means at a time he needs it the most. The fun stuff like breakdancing and manning a water slide of bikini-clad girls are merely comic perks overlaying his new sense of inclusion.
Entering the film is easy due to James’ highly effective melancholy and pent-up anger at the failings of those who should be the ones explaining everything is okay. His transformation is simultaneously extreme and subtle as his personality becomes fractured between home and work until the learned confidence spills out in an emotionally-charged climactic confrontation with those who’ve let him down. No matter how good his performance, though, the film’s lynchpin is Rockwell’s playfully immature friend to the masses who himself is changed by his unknown desire to make a connection with someone who needs him and not the other way around. There is real growth from beginning to end for both characters and the laughs along the way help open us to the realization it all only seems familiar because we’ve lived it.
 Toni Collette as “Pam” and and Steve Carrel as “Trent” in THE WAY WAY BACK
 Sam Rockwell as “Owen” and Liam James as “Duncan” in THE WAY WAY BACK
 Liam James as “Duncan” and AnnaSophia Robb as “Susanna” on the set of THE WAY WAY BACK