The 400-Word Review: The Way, Way Back
By Sean Collier
July 22, 2013

We can't pass for 23, can we?

If a movie manages to create one relatable, compelling character, it sits ahead of the curve. If everyone on screen is a complex soul, it’s nearly unrivaled.

Such is the case with The Way, Way Back, the second theatrical feature from writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (after The Descendants, for which they won an Oscar.) The writers also make their directorial debuts here, and appear in supporting roles.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is in the custody of his embattled mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend, alpha-male Trent (Steve Carell, in a very new mode.) They’re bound for Trent’s beach house, sequestering Duncan in an anonymous seaside town full of adults behaving badly; with little to do, Duncan gravitates toward Owen (Sam Rockwell), the charismatic manager of a throwback water park.

The Way, Way Back has aesthetic similarities with a long line of lost-summer movies, but its concerns are character-driven. Owen’s Gen-X slacker-royalty act is entrancing to young teenagers, but exasperating to his loved ones; Pam’s imprisoned by fears about her future. And Duncan is struggling to figure out how to act in an environment where he knows there’s no one worth emulating .

It’s a credit to the considerable screenwriting talents of Faxon and Rash that The Way, Way Back can find time, in between entangling all those strands, to be hilarious. (Rockwell’s performance is unforgettably uproarious, with at least a dozen laugh-out-loud moments and probably more.) The team’s win for The Descendants was well-deserved, and their work here — an original script, by the way, unlike Descendants — is just as good, if not better. They’re similarly skilled behind the camera, truly showing their hands only in subtle, amusing touches.

And in a year full of bloated “marquee” casts, The Way, Way Back has one of the best. Collette, Carell and Rockwell are all stellar, as are Allison Janney and Maya Rudolph in supporting roles. Young James — already something of a veteran of TV and film, currently in the midst of a regular role on AMC’s The Killing — manages to hit a note that should be familiar to anyone with a working memory of their teenage years.

Even with several of this year’s blockbusters rising above the crop, no picture in theaters right now approaches The Way, Way Back’s status as essential cinema. It’s hard to imagine a viewer that won’t be enchanted by it.

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at