In recent years we have seen a wave of coming-of-age films. It’s a genre where there is nothing much left really to say and yet still produces quality films on a consistent basis. The Way, Way Back is a perfect example of this. Its quirkiness might bring some originality to it (although it’s nothing that Adventureland hasn’t done already), but where this film really excels is in its ability to bring together a stalwart cast. While the story may be unoriginal, the cast and the way they play their respective parts certainly are original.
The Way, Way Back follows Duncan (Liam James), who is brought along on summer vacation to his mother’s (Toni Collette) boy friend’s (Steve Carell) summer home on a seaside beach in Massachusetts. While trying to come to terms with his parents’ divorce and the presence of his mother’s boyfriend in his life, Duncan meets a neighborhood teenage girl (AnnaSophia Robb), who is not like most girls around town, and a water park owner (Sam Rockwell), who takes a liking to him. The film is directed and written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won Oscars for working with Alexander Payne on The Descendants).
With The Descendants being their first feature script, it was very possible that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were just a fluke writing duo (especially considering that project was considered more to be a work of Alexander Payne than these two). Well this film proves that to be incorrect as Faxon and Rash not only write a good film but also do a solid job in their first directing effort. Faxon and Rash quickly go for a quirky style and hold to it for the rest of the film. It takes a while to get used to but it really pays off by the end of the film. While the story is unoriginal, you can tell there was some effort put in by Faxon and Rash by the way most of these characters are written. Most of them seem like complete characters and even the unlikeable ones have a purpose in the end.
However, the real highlight of the film is the cast that is assembled for it. Liam James (who isn’t good as Mireille Enos’ son in The Killing) seems a bit off to begin with. He just can’t hold the screen by himself. However, as the cast of characters gets bigger, it turns out he can play off of all of them well even if he isn’t compelling by himself. The highlight of the film is Sam Rockwell, who once again showcases why he might be the most underrated actor in the business. Rockwell plays a character with severe character flaws, which Rockwell just uses to make his performance even more interesting. Allison Janney is quite good as one of the more comedic characters while Maya Rudolph is well cast as a love interest for Rockwell’s character. Toni Collette is good as well (even if she doesn’t get anything interesting to play with until the final third of the film) while Amanda Peet gets one of her more impressive roles in a while. Steve Carell gives what is sure to be the most controversial performance of the film. Carell does something here that he has never done before, and while that will turn off people who are used to Carell’s comedic charm, it allows Carell to explore territory he hasn’t done before. It’s easily his greatest film performance yet, in my opinion. Also in small roles are Jim Rash and Nat Faxon who add some fun in their own different ways.
The Way, Way Back may be a bit light but a strong cast makes it worth your while.