The Way Way Back

Aug 28, 2013

Unusually unaffected summer coming-of age tale.

Grade: B+

Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Screenplay: Faxon, Rush

Cast: Liam James (Fred Claus), Steve Carell (Crazy, Stupid, Love)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 103 min.

by John DeSando

Pam: Where were you Duncan?

Duncan: Nowhere.

Pam: That's a long time to be nowhere?

Duncan: Well that's where I was!

For 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) in The Way Way Home, this summer is from hell, or at least nowhere, although you wouldn’t know it to look at the Massachusetts beach resort town. Sun, swimsuits, and a water park are all most of us would need to be satisfied. But he’s an early teen whose demeanor is common: a scowl, an averted gaze, head down, introverted, and inarticulate.

However, this is a modern comin-of-age tale, which promises growth in awareness of adult foolishness and unfulfilled youthful yearnings. That happens along with a smashing cast of characters, all of whom color Duncan’s experience and eventually lead to his maturity. With songs like “Can’t Fight This Feeling" as background, it’s low-key lyrical, unassuming and watchable.

It’s a long journey in a short summer that takes off when brooding Duncan joins the circus, so to speak, rather the Water Wiz Park, where impresario Owen (a superb Sam Rockwell doing his brash “I’ll do it my way” persona to perfection) clowns and generally keeps all ages happy with his comical but hip patter and big heart. Duncan secretly takes a staff job, which leads to his feeling at home and finding a surrogate dad in Owen.

Unlike other coming-of-age stories, Way doesn’t force the moral import or have magical things happen to Duncan. Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash gently take us through the summer as if we were sipping marguerites on the beach while the young’uns do their adolescent anguished drill. Besides his normal hormonal imbalance, Duncan must witness his divorced mom, Pam (Toni Collette), struggle with unfaithful boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), whose irritating presence becomes more of an issue as Duncan gets the courage to call him out. Carell is playing more the Alec Baldwin philandering role than his usually clueless, loveable shlub.

The film makes no easy or magical solution to these challenges and unlike Little Miss Sunshine, doesn’t make eccentric characters that distract from healthy dialogue. The Way Way Back is derivative, fulfilling the formula laid down long ago by such heavyweights as 400 Blows (1959), Stand by Me (1986) and a host of variations such as The Descendants, which Faxon and Rash wrote. This film’s unsentimental attitude is all you need for a summer that rings true for most of the adults in the audience.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at