The Way Way Back Review

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After the separation of his parents, Duncan (James) has to spend the summer by the beach with his mother and her horrible new boyfriend. Anticipating a summer of misery, he finds events taking a more positive turn when he finds a new job and possible first love.


Coastal resorts have always been a good setting for coming-of-age stories. Everyone’s in a holiday mood, there’s usually lip-loosening booze nearby and clothing is at a minimum. You can’t help but wind up kissing someone or other. The Way Way Back is a particularly fine example of the genre. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants, it’s a charming comedy that puts an arm around the gauche teen still shuffling about in us all.

Duncan (Liam James) is forced into a summer holiday with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, proving quite despicably good at being a prize a-hole), a man who tells Duncan that on a scale of one to ten, he’s a three. Duncan spends the next few weeks pushing up those digits by working up to thinking about talking to the girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) and getting a job at the local pool, where he is mentored by Owen (Sam Rockwell), who has the work ethic of a hobo and the life view of a Golden Retriever.

What makes this more than just a teen film is the attention paid to every character. Even if their screen-time is minimal, Faxon and Rash’s refined writing means each person tells a full story, from Pam trying to hold a family together by keeping in her every feeling, to a sad-sack shack attendant, played by Rash, whose life moves in a tiny cycle he can’t break. And then you have Allison Janney’s boozy neighbour, blowing through scenes like a tornado of rum fumes and making you wonder why nobody’s writing films especially for her. There is delight everywhere you look.

Duncan’s problems aren’t severe — his parents disappoint him, but whose haven’t at some point, to some degree? — but that is why the movie should work for just about everyone, except, perhaps, the incurably confident. It’s not about overcoming a shattering trauma and learning to go on with life. It’s about kicking life’s annoyances in the balls and standing a little taller.

A film for every age, whether you’re an awkward kid, former awkward kid or awkward kid-adjacent. Funny, real and uplifting. A film that reaffirms your belief in the human spirit.