The Way Way Back (2013)

At a time when Hollywood unleashes endless hordes of loud, fiercely rendered action blockbusters, it would be far too easy for films like The Way Way Back to float by completely unnoticed. Much like the plight of the film’s lead character Duncan (Liam James), the smaller, gentler, quieter films are almost completely engulfed by their domineering big-budgeted brethren. The Way Way Back however, offers audiences a much-needed reprieve from the epic intensity of the summer season and rewards viewers with a film that is veiled with sincere authenticity and honesty.

Debut directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (part of the team that delivered the Oscar-winning script for The Descendants) have delivered a sweet, charming, funny and candid insight into the realities teenagers face when confronted with parental dysfunction and family brokenness. It’s a coming-of-age story that despite following a well-trodden narrative path, conducts itself and its difficult emotional content earnestly and almost without cliché. It’s also by far one of the most enriching films of the year and deserves to be remembered and celebrated come Oscar time.

Isolated in his own world and overlooked by everyone else, Duncan’s (James) outlook on life is justifiably dire. His mother (Toni Collette) prioritises her rebounding relationship with new boyfriend Trent (an against-type Steve Carell) over providing the maternal care and nurturing her son desperately needs. It seems that everyone around Duncan fails to notice a child that is clearly in need of some sort of mentoring. More than anything, Duncan just needs a friend.

From the film’s onset, Duncan is established as a true underdog, having Trent verbally demoralise the angst-ridden teenager by insinuating that out of ‘10’, he would only warrant a ‘3’. Luckily for Duncan (and the audience), joy and solace can be found in the form of the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Owen (played to perfection by a show-stealing Sam Rockwell), the man-child operator of a local water park.

Where The Way Way Back finds its greatest appeal is in its beautifully-portrayed and fully-realised characters and how their interactions seem completely natural and unforced. The scenes between the sensitive Duncan and the fun-loving Owen provide a genuine warmth and uplifting spirit that has lacked from many of the 2013 releases so far. Rockwell in particular, is the larger-than-life spark of the film, spitting out line after line of humorous witty banter to encourage, motivate and snap Duncan out of his funk.

Viewing this film did make me recall other recent indie dramadies like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno and (the underrated) Adventureland, but this film can stand comfortably on its own feet as something fresh and distinctive. Witnessing the maturation and transformation of Duncan is a cinematic triumph and the film’s resolution is perfectly touching. I found myself simply not wanting the film to end.

If you find yourself fatigued by the blockbuster season, then The Way Way Back is your funny, touching, smart and highly enjoyable remedy.

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