"The Way Way Back" (2013)- Movie Review

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Staring Liam James, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph

‘Simplicity at it’s finest’

We’re all familiar with what makes up a great Summer: the fresh whiff of air outside, chance to reunite with friends, freedom to pursue hobbies on a regular basis and most importantly, a sense of excitement. Nowadays it means nothing but fun, especially for teens. Youngsters around the world see it as a rare opportunity to get away from stressful studies, only to relax and enjoy life.

Yet sometimes life has a bad habit of throwing problems upon you. For Duncan in the latest teen-dramedy “The Way Way Back”, that inescapable problem is his step-dad. Parents having split up, the 14-year old is pummeled into an awkward situation: spending Summer with his Mother as well her new boyfriend. So why is Duncan so miserable when he should be having fun? In the opening scene of “The Way Way Back”, it becomes clear that his Summer is no exciting one. The film begins with a small-chit-chat yet memorable conversation. As Duncan appears to be listening to music, his step-father asks him what he would rate himself on a scale from 1-10. Silence. Surprised, Duncan says a 6. But much to the teenager’s disappointment, Carell’s character disagrees. In a rude manner, he immediately points out that Duncan is a mere 3. Why? Cause he appears to be lazy (a seemingly lousy excuse to insult someone).

This particular sequence sets a distinct tone for “The Way Way Back”; a heartwarming, moving and often laugh-out-loud funny film about growing up. Taking a concept as simple as the ABC syllabus, but then turning it into something everlasting, it beautifully captures the angst, tension and troubles faced by teenagers. While the filmmakers don’t offer any significant depth or insight into the topic, this is the kind of movie that’s delved in humanity. It’s alive with emotions, springing them from every corner of it’s well-structured story arc. Happiness, sadness and angriness; you name a feeling and it’s there. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that it avoids typical Hollywood cliches such as a schmaltzy, predictable ending. This movie, unlike many others of it’s type, is grounded in reality. However simple the story itself may seem, it’s one that deserves to be heard.

Especially when it’s lead character faces conflicts that everyday teens can relate to. Whether the challenge is to stand up for yourself, make friends, or be independent, people always go through a ‘coming-of-age’ period in life. As the film’s tagline states, ‘we’ve all been there before’ in our lives. “The Way Way Back” brings back those memories, yet in a different and arguably better manner than that of usual Hollywood fare. Instead of leaning towards the been-there-done-that formula that the industry has been using for a while, directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash decide to make something more out of a simple concept. It’s a seemingly challenging job needing a mix of great talent and understanding of the topic. Count in passion, the most vital ingredient of all, and you’ve got a motion picture that offers more on it’s palette than what people normally expect.

“The Way Way Back” is that special gem of a movie. Elevated by a double act of delightful performances working with a solid script, its filmmaking that’s as refreshing as an ice-cold glass of water. Who would’ve expected such glory from a genre washed out by simple-mindedness? Definitely not me. But in a Summer season exploding with big-budget entertainers, it’s always a treat to watch a little film that makes itself just as heard.

After beautifully infusing charm and wonder into 2011’s “The Descendants”, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash return as writers. But this time around, they’re facing a tough obstacle that they’ve never ventured into before: directing. Usually, it’s quite rare for first-timers in the field to make an impact. Anyhow, despite their position, Faxon and Rash manage to stand tall on their feet. With careful hands, they craft together a marvelously balanced dramedy. Finding a pitch-perfect harmony between drama and comedy, they never let one of the elements outweigh the other. You never get the sense that there’s too much of anything; an incredible achievement for talent that is new to this area of interest.

Possessing an even greater understanding of the movie’s topic is a fantastic ensemble cast. Magically, it never ceases to disappoint. On one hand, there’s a rollicking and likable Sam Rockwell offering irresistible charm in the role of a friendly teen idol. This actor shuts down the seemingly simple nature surrounding his character only to come across as an inspiring figure. Loud-mouthed and rather childish he is, but you can tell right from his first appearance down to his last that he’s having a blast. A hell of a good time for sure, because whenever he shows up, he consistently provides amusing comical relief with a screen presence that shines bright.

Equally effective is Steve Carell in the last role one would’ve expected him to excel in: an idiotic jerk. He absolutely nails the quick-witted, sharp and cruel insults his character disposes of every now and then. So much that, by the end of the movie, all you want to do is slap this guy in the face.

Yet neither of these performers are the real standout. The film’s success ultimately boils down to it’s leading star Liam James. Like the captain of a Soccer team, upon whom all the weight and dependence is thrust, this young actor has a tough job to pull off. Surprisingly, he doesn’t disappoint. Not one bit. Proving to be a pivotal star, he seamlessly evokes the confusion and challenges that teens experience on a day-to-day basis.

Although it plays out at a short running time, “The Way Way Back” is perfectly paced. It’s entertaining throughout, without a single unnecessary or out-of-place moment. It also happens to be one of the only movies of the year that made me laugh, get angry and nearly cry. Even if the story lacks depth, it’s hard to stop these feelings from sweeping you away.

4/5 stars

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