The Way, Way Back

The Way, Way Back

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Nat Faxton and Jim Rash's directorial debut may not be breaking any new ground but this is a warm and funny tale, helped enormously by good performances and a snappy script.

Similar in tone to Little Miss Sunshine, the echo is reinforced by the presence of Toni Collette and Steve Carrell and the fact that Fox Searchlight rushed to snatch it up at Sundance. And if the dysfunctional family territory is familiar, the humour is consistenty fresh in what turns out to be a not so much a coming-of-age story as a coming-of-confidence.

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Collette's Pam is a case in point. Making tentative steps back into the world of romance following her divorce, she may seem chirpy on the outside and full of excitement for a summer vacation with new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) but nervousness and a desire to please hang around her like a cloud. Then there's her son Duncan (Liam James). Introspective from the outset, he's not helped in the slightest by Trent's bullish disregard for anyone's feelings but his own, typified by his would-be stepfather's declaration, with not the slightest hint of a joke, that on a ratings scale from 1-10, Duncan is a three.

Arriving at a ready-made community of once-a-year friends, described by one as "spring break for adults", the child/adult reversal is everywhere - from a disregard for fidelity to an overindulgence in booze and drugs - leading Duncan to seek escape, through both a hestitant friendship with the nextdoor neighbour's daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and the discovery of local water park Water Wizz.

Wizz is from a bygone age, and the manager Owen (Sam Rockwell, putting in his best comic performance for a long time) could make a slacker look industrious. Drifting around the park on a wave of one-liners, he nevertheless recognises Duncan as a good kid who just needs a hand up and soon gets him involved in the running of the place while peppering him with a barrage of gags that mostly flow over his head - "You don't get sarcasm, do you?" he points out. As the summer progresses, Duncan starts to find a spark of self-worth and it seems his mum may be on the verge of a similar epiphany.

James, who has been a jobbing TV actor for several years, sells Duncan completely, making his journey seem natural and gradual. Collette, as always, proves the queen of emotional transition and Carrell, although shackled with the least believable and most two-dimensional of the main characters, nevertheless throws himself into it with comic gusto. There is also terrific support from the likes of Allison Janney, whose neighbour Betty takes outrageous to Oscar Wilde proportions, and Maya Rudolph, as Caitlyn, the water park second-in-command who is hoping Owen will do some growing up of his own.

Faxton and Rash - who previously teamed up on The Descendants - let their script do the talking and create a good sense of atmosphere, neatly contrasting the juvenile sense of uncertainty of Duncan to the overblown bravado of the adults. The production values may rough and ready and the direction never more than workmanlike but this is a sunny crowd-pleaser that keeps you rooting for the kid.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2013
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An introverted teenager finds friends and confidence over the course of a summer holiday.
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Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Writer: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James

Year: 2013

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US

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Sundance 2013

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