The Way, Way Back: A Poignant Coming-of-Age Story

L-R: Zoe Levin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, and Liam James in The Way, Way Back. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

The Way, Way Back is a poignant coming-of-age story and marked the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release this past summer.

This film is a case of awards making a difference. Searchlight considered going forward at one point in 2007. However, it wasn’t until Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won an Oscar for their work on The Descendants for things to start falling into place. That was what ultimately sealed the deal when it came to financing. This isn’t the first time an awards made a different and it won’t be the last time either. The duo have written a solid script for their directorial debut, which they premiered at Sundance. I don’t have a single complaint about the film in general. There are immature characters but it would not surprise me to find somebody like Roddy working at any kind of amusement or water park.

The Way, Way Back starts with Trent (Steve Carell) delivering a speech to Duncan (Liam James). Anyway, they are traveling to their summer family vacation with Duncan’s mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan really isn’t fitting in and decides to ride a bike to the nearby Water Wizz Water Park, beginning the summer of a lifetime. He also ends up befriending the manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), and gets a job at the park. Working at the park enables Duncan to open up and find out who he really is. Living next door are Betty Thompson (Allison Janney) and her children, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Peter (River Alexander). Duncan and Susanna later bond over their absent fathers but they never really become anything more than just close friends.

Setting a film at a water park means being able to meet all sorts of characters. You have Lewis (Jim Rash), who keeps saying he’s going to leave for good and is still there. Meanwhile, Roddy (Nat Faxon) is something of a misogynist. He’s the guy who controls who goes down the slide and when. It wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t so much of a misogynist. Pay attention to the camera gaze during these scenes. Duncan also utilizes some of the same behavior as he starts opening up at the park. But anyway, the standout water slide at the park is Devil’s Park. It’s not without issues as people will get struck especially if they decide to break the rules. Anyway, Roddy is probably Duncan’s closest friend at the park next to Owen.

I cannot talk about this film without discussing Sam Rockwell. Rockwell brings to the film what Bill Murray brought to Meatballs. He steals the show! Honestly, how he did not earn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor is beyond me. Rockwell is having so much fun with the role–it helps when Faxon and Rash are directing–that you actually forget how many racists he would portray over the next few years. Personally, I’d have nominated him over Jared Leto, a cisgender man who won award after award for portraying a transgender woman.

Trent’s speech to Duncan at the start of the film is a speech once delivered to co-director/writer Jim Rash when he was 14. Like Duncan, Jim had also replied that he was a six, feeling that it was a safe answer. But that said, telling a teen that they are a 3 on a 1-10 scale does nothing for self-esteem. Moreover, if you’re the guy dating his mother, maybe don’t be such an asshole. This is such a complete asshole move!

When I first saw this film in July 2013, I thought for sure that it would follow Little Miss Sunshine and Juno in earning a Best Picture nomination. After all, there had been a number of indie comedies to be nominated. What this film had going for it is that they share producers with Little Miss Sunshine plus the same studio as Juno. How could it not earn a nomination?!? Alas, it didn’t, possibly because it did not do enough business at the box office. The Academy could have nominated another film but left the field at just 9 nominations for Best Picture. I say all of this after watching similar coming-of-age stories that year. There’s just something about the way that The Way, Way Back is performed, written, and directed that sets it apart from other coming-of-age movies.

CAST: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, and Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, River Alexander, Zoe Levin, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Searchlight Pictures released The Way, Way Back in theaters on July 5, 2013. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.