2013, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Socially awkward white male teen goes on a family vacation to the beach for the summer. His parents are divorced, his step-dad is a dick, his step-sister is a vapid waste and his mother doesn’t see how terrible they are. Everyone’s condescending, they pick on him and he has no friends. He hates everything until he meets a super cool, charismatic adult who for some reason takes a shine to him and pulls him out of his box to let him know just how great life can be. Some drama ensues along the way, but mostly it’s a breezy experience filled with humor and recurring gags.
Sound familiar? It should, since we’ve seen it a million times. The directorial debut of the Oscar-winning writing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Way Way Back offers nothing new and nothing particularly interesting to the tried and true formula of the summer coming-of-age story. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by such a bland and forgettable experience given my feelings towards their previous effort The Descendants, but with a cast of this caliber I fooled myself into thinking that maybe this could have more energy to it.
Sadly, there’s only one real drop of energy to be found here and that comes from the Energizer bunny that is Sam Rockwell. As the older male who takes our protagonist under his wing, Rockwell is a mastermind of quick wit and affable charm, taking his unquenchable energy and giving The Way Way Back as much juice as possible. The film is a chore to get through when he’s not around, but he lights it up when given the opportunity and his largely improvised performance sends a wealth of delight off the screen that is otherwise entirely absent from such a turgid bore. He even gives a little bit of weight and character depth to his work that wasn’t available on the script, largely thanks to the great chemistry shared between him and Maya Rudolph.
The rest of the cast does the best they can, but Faxon and Rash write them into such narrow holes that they can’t really find a way to dig out. Toni Collette brings some gravitas to the mother just trying to do her best and Steve Carell is very convincing in his against-type portrayal of the ridiculously loathsome step-father (technically just the mother’s boyfriend but let’s not split hairs) but these characters are all such one-note types it’s impossible to find interest in them. The Way Way Back is borderline intolerable until Rockwell shows up, and while it is able to sustain a more acceptable demeanor afterwards it still suffers under the weakness of the two men behind it.
Faxon and Rash keep things entirely in the perspective of the protagonist Duncan and so it could be difficult to add more depth to the supporting characters as a result, but the big problem with that is they should have at least done something to make Duncan even remotely interesting or worth caring about. Unfortunately that’s not the case and along with Liam James’ disastrous performance entirely devoid of anything close to charisma The Way Way Back is crippled from the start by a character I didn’t want to spend any time with. Even when they bring him out of his shell there wasn’t anything there for me to care about thanks to that dreadful combination of poor writing and poorer performance. Give me a movie about Rockwell’s character and there’s something I would be interested in, but as much as he soars the rest of this film utterly sinks.
Sam Rockwell would often improvise and joke around on the loudspeaker during scenes. One time, forgetting that there were children around, he made an inappropriate joke about herpes, which upset the owner of the park. Rockwell had to go and apologize so that they could continue filming.
IMDb trivia for The Way, Way Back