Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have shown they are pretty comfortable writing dramedy. They adapted The Descendants wonderfully to the big-screen, crafting a script fashioned perfectly for the unique skills of filmmaker Alexander Payne. It is strange, I admit, seeing two actors famous for being on-screen jokers manage to comfortably handle such poignant drama, but it also pleased me because now they are back with an effort all of their own in The Way Way Back. Not only is it an original script by the pair, but it also sees them behind the lens directing.
14-year old Duncan is forced to spend the summer with his Mum and her new boyfriend at a beach house on the East Coast. Duncan is a miserable young man, he is angry at his parents for divorcing and even angrier at his Mother for dating such a douchebag. He fails to connect with anybody in his life. Duncan eventually stumbles into Water Wizz, a local water theme park. Duncan befriends the parks manager, Owen, an immature man who’s only goal is live carefree. Owen rubs off on Duncan and begins to guide him, filling him with joy and showing him the best life has to offer.
Being a coming of age drama means you know exactly where The Way Way Back is heading. It would normally be a sign of a poor film, but The Way Way Back does stick close the rulebook. Faxon and Rash prove that isn’t always a bad thing by fleshing out great characters and handling the mixture of comedy and drama with ease. The film seems perfectly comfortable being predictable because the writers are aware that’ll it’ll be the characters the pull your heart-strings, not the plot. This is a great asset and has allowed the boys to relax a little more in the story department and focus their efforts on developing the leads, an element that is sadly frequently overlooked in a sub-genre that always needs it.
To go with the strong character development, The Way Way Back also features a strong cast. Duncan is a miserable character, but thanks to the performance of Liam James the character is strangely lovable. It is an understated performance from the young man, subtly getting under the guard of the audience and being quite affecting in the films final moments. Despite how great James is, it is Sam Rockwell that runs away with the show. Rockwell’s performance as Owen is charming and hilarious, delivering line after line of solid gold comedy and also sweetly handling his down-to-earth moments. It is well-rounded performance from an under-appreciated actor.
If the film has one weak spot it is the treatment of supporting characters. Whilst Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell have nicely fleshed characters that effect the overarching plot, the rest of the cast offer next to nothing and often feel like cardboard cutouts or caricatures. This is most prevalent with the female characters, all of whom are included for a line or two of helpful advice across the film and that is all. All the wonderful woman handled themselves competently, but there is no meat to their characters and it is damn shame because the film could have used a stronger female because all of them are portrayed as weak.
Thanks mostly to their honest and down-to-earth script, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have nailed their directorial debut comfortably. Whilst they never break new ground, their writing is funny and sweet and as a result the film is a joy to sit through. They deliver poignant dramatic notes and will also have you giggling hysterically. The cast are also wonderful, with Sam Rockwell, Liam James and Steve Carell coming out the best. You’ve seen The Way Way Back a dozen times, but that never changes how entertaining and enjoyable the film is.