This is the type of comedy drama that tries to appeal to the same crossover indie-mainstream market that gushed over films like The Kids Are All Right, Little Miss Sunshine and The Descendants. It’s actually made by the Academy Award winning co-writers (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) of that latter film and although it isn’t as emotionally literate, The Way Way Back provides a winning mixture of comedy, sentiment and drama.
The story observes a summer holiday where a 14-year old boy (Liam James) has to deal with a new addition to his family, his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Carell). He is hypocritical, mean and always asserts his dominance over his partner’s son. The aforementioned mother and partner (played by Toni Collette) is so infatuated with him she fails to see (or turns a blind eye to) her son’s suffering.
So, with his parents (and their raucous friends) out getting drunk and pretending they’re still in their 20s, our teenage protagonist gets a job at a waterpark and befriends the witty but immature manager (Sam Rockwell).
The movie is at its most perceptive when it examines how the behaviour of parents – behaviour that may seem trivial to them – can have a damaging affect on their children. One standout scene very effectively shows a boy’s upset and disappointment with his mother when she chooses to take cannabis with her friends. On the lighter end of the scale, The West Wing-actor Alison Janey gives a humorous, though quietly touching, turn as an alcoholic mother whose husband has come out as gay. Though the role is mostly played for laughs, she manages it with skill.
There is one running joke in the movie that comes across as terribly misguided, if not downright pernicious, involving a 30-something-year old male’s ogling of the bikini-clad behinds of young women as they prepare to go down a water slide. It’s presented as a funny way of educating a young lad in how to sexually appreciate the female form. Considering the ambiguous age of the girls they admire, and the fact the whole thing involves deceiving and manipulating them, it comes across as pervy, repulsive and disappointingly reminiscent of more vile and misogynist comedies such as The Hangover.
Leaving this unfortunate aspect aside, The Way Way Back does well in crafting a very watchable coming-of-age story out of quite a simple set-up. Liam James is excellent in the central role, and with the collection of experienced actors supporting him the film impresses as a well-acted, well-made movie and the perfect piece of escapism for those still trying to get the last out of the summer-holiday feeling.
The Way Way Back (2013), directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is released in cinemas in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 12A. Watch the trailer below: