'The Way Way Back' review: Great cast + solid humor = great coming-of-age flick
One of the strongest films of 2013 is a simple, brilliantly executed coming-of-age story of a teen's summer vacation to a seaside town.
In short: Teenager Duncan joins his divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her new jerk of a boyfriend (Steve Carell) on a summer vacation. Although the new boyfriend says he wants to bond with Duncan, the quiet teen struggles to fit in with the overbearing boyfriend's friends and family. However, Duncan finds a place for him working at a nearby water park filled with eccentric employees. (watch the trailer)
'The Way, Way Back' works because it posits a sullen, introverted teenage boy in a dreadful situation - and reveals how/why Duncan is so isolated. The new boyfriend alienates Duncan thoroughly and Duncan finds himself surrounded by characters who treat him as either invisible or worthless. Although the first act takes a while to establish the story, a healthy amount of humor and setting dramatic tension never lets the momentum drag.
Duncan (Liam James) is an every teen character. He is initially an awkward teen of few words who is more likely to walk away dejectedly than assert himself at all. Even in his victories, he is not graceful. He doesn't always say exactly the right thing at the right moment. At no point does Duncan feel like a movie caricature of a brooding teen: Duncan is a relate-able, wonderful hero whose plight is understandable, which only makes his character growth more meaningful. As the narrative progresses, Duncan never completely loses his stooped over gait or his sheepish grin, even as Duncan evolves.
This coming-of-age comedy allows the characters to develop, flourish and dynamically affect each other. Although this is primarily Duncan's story, the story allows many other characters to evolve - and almost none of it feels forced. The best drama comes from character conflict, and relies less on external plot elements.
The only major flaw of 'Way Back,' however, is an odd plot element involving the new boyfriend. Without spoiling anything, this melodramatic plot point seemingly drops out of the sky. Although this story choice does reinforce the already deeply established d-bag status of the mom's new boyfriend, removing this major plot element could have achieved the same story resolution and only made 'Way Back' stronger.
The Oscar-winning writing duo of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash prove their success with 'The Descendants' wasn't a fluke. The 'Descendants' was not a flashy film and neither is 'The Way, Way Back' - Faxon and Rash are simply great storytellers who allow their characters to drive the story.
The incredibly entertaining performances from Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell must be noted. Their characters provide the film's biggest laugh breaks and keep the tone fun and at time poignant. Despite it's large cast size and modest running time (approx. 90 mins), just about every character contributes to Duncan's overall change in one-way or another. There's almost no wasted characters and very little fat to trim in this excellent film.
The focused storytelling keeps Duncan the focal point of this narrative - which allows 'The Way, Way Back' to tell a rich and moving story of a teenage boy's growth.
Final verdict: an absolute must-see film of 2013.