As an entry into the ever-expanding “coming-of-age” genre of film, “The Way, Way Back” takes a traditional approach to the tale of an introverted teen coming out of his shell. Set in an East Coast beach town during the hot days of summer — clearly evocative of an 1980s aesthetic — “The Way, Way Back” thrives on a sense of nostalgia. But for what “The Way, Way Back” lacks in a unique style or cleverness, it makes up for with pure earnestness and sincerity coupled with charming performances and a witty script, all of which make the film one of the best in its genre.
At the heart of the film’s perfectly tuned script is the standard premise of the awkward, nerdy kid finding a mentor. The film starts with 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) being called a “three” out of ten by his mother’s new boyfriend, the deceptively friendly Trent (Steve Carell), as they head toward his summer beach house to spend their vacation with their makeshift family, including Duncan’s mom (Toni Collette) and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). As Duncan, James captures a sense of authentic dorkiness required for the role, as most of the adults in his life spend their days drinking and reliving their college years. Duncan eventually meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who happens to be the owner of the local water park, and they form a strong friendship. Even the film’s supporting cast shines; Allison Janney as the divorced, loud-mouth neighbor is perfectly suited to the most hilarious parts of the script, and Maya Rudolph, Owen’s co-worker love interest who’s trying to get her life together, serves as a great contrast to Rockwell’s delightfully charming performance. Within a plot that is interested in the nuances of the genre and not unique situations or characters, every performance feels completely genuine.
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, both of whom had won an Oscar for writing the screenplay adaptation for the 2011 film “The Descendants,” “The Way, Way Back” shares similar themes of blended families and difficult transition periods that mirrored some of Faxon and Rash’s personal experiences growing up. But “The Way, Way Back” also stands as Faxon and Rash’s directorial debut. Having created and held this screenplay for nearly five years — it also helped them land their previous job writing the screenplay of “The Descendants” — “The Way, Way Back” is an invested project for Faxon and Rash. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Rash explained that after winning an Oscar for “The Descendants,” “We really wanted go back to the thing that started it all for us.” And “The Way, Way Back” reflects Rash and Faxon’s talent as well as their personalities; deep down, it is a film that could only be made by well-crafted writers willing to blend their fragile childhoods with their love for classic “coming-of-age” ’80s films.
With all of this comes a sense of universality in the film that makes every moment more genuine and real. While the setting of the film is in a distinctly ’80s summer beach town complete with a traditional, old-school waterpark, the film doesn’t root itself in this time period. There are hints of a modern setting: Duncan is seen listening to his iPod — though he is listening to REO Speedwagon, a fitting embodiment of ’80s rock music — and a crucial scene takes place on a modern motorboat. Though the film risks being disjointed, the script blends eras into a theme of timelessness. Faxon detailed this shift in tone during production of the film, stating, “As the story evolved, it made more sense to take it out of the ’80s and make it timeless — really wanting it to connect to a broader audience.” Reflected in the film, Duncan becomes both the ’80s dorky protagonist and modern introvert protagonist, and ultimately, this places him in less of a stereotypical role and makes him more of a genuine character.
“The Way, Way Back” is a genuine tale of growth, love and heartbreak. Emotionally resounding from its simple yet polished premise, it is easy to connect and sympathize with Duncan and the fragile world around him. Overall, sharp writing, great performances and a sense of sincerity over raunch make “The Way, Way Back” an incredible coming-of-age film and one of the best films of the year.