Teen-coming-of-age stories drop out of Hollywood’s ass like sci-fi sequels. They’re so easy to get wrong. Yet The Way Way Back gets it wittily, thrillingly right. It turns the familiar into something bracingly fresh and funny. It makes you laugh, then breaks your heart.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rashare the writers. They’re former Groundlings and sitcom actors – Faxon in Ben and Kate, Rash in Community – and they shared a screenwriting Oscar for The Descendants with director Alexander Payne. Faxon and Rash are also the directors, a first time for both of them. Do it again, guys. You’re good at it.
The plot reads like standard-issue drool. Duncan (a commendably unslick Liam James), 14, is riding way, way back in a station wagon with Pam (a stellar Toni Collette), his divorced mom, and Trent (Steve Carell), her tool of a boyfriend. It’s Trent’s car, and his house they’re about to vacation in. Trent says that on a scale of one to 10, he’d rate Duncan a three. Carell breaks type as a prick in paternal guise, and he’s brilliant, acing a juicy role.
The movie is packed with characters, all wonderfully acted. Allison Janney kills as an oversexed neighbor. Anna-Sophia Robb is lovely as the older girl Duncan crushes on. Maya Rudolph and Faxon and Rash themselves are riots as employees at a tacky water park. It’s here that Duncan bonds with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the rebellious park manager. Rockwell, an actor at the tiptop of his game, is phenomenal – mad funny and touching. You won’t want to leave these characters behind. I’d rate this dream of a comedy a 10 out of 10, but I don’t want to jinx it. People like to throw stones at perfect scores, so I took out half a star. Big lie. I loved every minute of it.