Awkward teenage boy. Modern, broken family. Summer vacation. Cute girl next door.
Yes, the script to The Way, Way Back practically writes itself. Within the first few minutes the clichéd plot has been predicted and you’re left wondering what the film can bring to the coming-of-age genre.
Yet none of that matters when the film is so incredibly charming, following on from Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. The narrative follows Duncan (Liam James), a shy, polite and gentle soul forced on holiday with his loved-up mother Pam (Toni Collette), her controlling boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his slutty daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Trent takes them off to his beach house to spend time as a family, but, simmering beneath, the foursome are far from a tight unit. The vacation proves to be a rite of passage for Duncan, as we watch him grow and blossom over the course of the film from a boy to a man – far more than the “3/10” Trent describes him as.
At its core, The Way, Way Back is a film about the need for a father figure. We never meet Duncan’s real father and Trent is a poor substitute. Duncan is left alone not knowing where he belongs, until he eventually meets the lazy and eccentric Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner of the local water park. It’s in Owen that Duncan finds the guidance and acceptance he needs and where he learns it’s ok to simply be himself.
This may seem like a saccharine message, but it’s subtly played amongst simple, clear cinematography, a truthful and honest script, great use of music and some wonderful performances that are comedic and heart-wrenching. Carell is infuriating as Trent – a Machiavellian stepfather whose manipulative ways are clear only to Duncan and the audience. His antithesis is Rockwell, who oozes charisma in a performance that is equally hilarious and tender. His outlandish behaviour is only outdone by Allison Janney as the overly friendly and talkative neighbour Betty.
At the centre, though, is James as Duncan. In one frown he manages to encapsulate the ennui of family holidays and the frustration of teenage youth – when he finally cracks into his goofy grin it will melt your heart. His is a character that every audience member can relate to and sympathise with immediately.
The Way, Way Back is the sort of universal film that affirms your faith in humanity; that will have you cheering and punching the air with delight; that fills your soul with that warm, fuzzy feeling and leaves you feeling like you can take on the world. To call this the feelgood film of the year would be a huge understatement.