By Matthew Wollin.
The Way, Way Back (directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) has the immense benefit of an all-star cast, and it is a pleasure to have a role like that of Caitlyn, a long-suffering employee of a water park, played by Maya Rudolph, who effortlessly projects warmth and intelligence. But it is also a bit disconcerting to have capital-T Talent in such a small role, and consequently, Caitlyn’s brief arc feels attenuated and underdeveloped. Rudolph is such a compelling presence that you could easily imagine a movie about her character alone, which is the case with many members of this cast.
The charm of the supporting characters comes through more with some than others, though the results are endearing in nearly all cases. Allison Janney steals every scene she is in as Betty, the next-door neighbor with a booze habit that is mostly hilarious rather than horrifying. She swigs, spins, and generally has a ball, spouting off an unceasing string of gimlet-eyed truths that could come across as cruel in lesser hands. Toni Collette’s Pam makes for a nicely matched foil, a lovely woman whose timidity is built on equal parts fear and grace.
Pam and her son are staying at the beach house of Pam’s boyfriend Trent, played by Steve Carrell in a bit of casting that never quite clicks. Trent is, to use the technical term, a douchebag, which is a shade that Carrell, so adept at playing incurable weirdos and sad-sack normal guys, does not take to easily. Trent seems tailor-written to be a tall, blond, share-holding stud, and Carrell’s everyman looks, despite the additions of an even tan and a decent amount of scruff, never give off the charisma that would make this villain plausibly appealing. As it is, he spends a fair amount of time canoodling with Joan, a neighbor who has either the good or bad fortune to be married to Rob Corddry, depending on where you stand. She has the definite good fortune to be played by Amanda Peet, who manages to enrich the overly simple character she is given with a few choice looks and shrugs, idling time until somebody gives her a role deserving of her ability.
But these adults are all sideshow attractions—good ones, to be fair—to the main event, which is the predictable but satisfying coming-of-age of Pam’s son Duncan. As Duncan, Liam James displays such pitch-perfect adolescence that he achieves something like the platonic ideal of that uncomfortable age. His growth from phenomenally awkward to somewhat awkward and then finally to barely awkward is so urgent and acutely portrayed that it is hard not to experience flashbacks to your own youth. His constant downward stare, his tense seriousness, and his ferocious silence are all spot on, and the source of playful mockery by his new best bud Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager at the water park where Duncan gets a job, who teases Duncan until he begins to get the joke. It helps that Rockwell is a force of nature, his madcap energy and halfway-brilliant psychobabble incessant, hilarious, and a joy to behold.
Duncan is such a sympathetic character that it’s easy to overlook the film’s weak spots, which include several slow stretches and narrative that is so traditional it feels almost cursory. That is to be expected from the coming-of-age genre, which by now has been so time-tested that it’s basically a color-by-numbers template—a reliable one, of course, which is why it is a model at all. So if it feels overly familiar to watch Duncan make cautious friendships, grow into his body, and finally stand up for what he believes in, do not worry about it too much. The story is nothing new, but with this much talent at work that is not such a bad thing.
Matthew Wollin is a writer and award-winning filmmaker based in New York City. He has written for numerous publications, including The Awl and Pop Matters. His films have shown in the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Columbus International Film and Video Festival, and he is currently producing a feature for later this year. He graduated from Williams College.