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:: The Way Way Back

Every year a film hits cinema screens that becomes a surprise hit. On the surface, that film will never look like it is going to turn out to be much, but then when it is released it warms critics’ hearts and gets glowing praise from them, before then also impressing film fans. This year that film is “The Way Way Back.” Now when a cynic looks at this film they may think ‘oh no the coming-of-age genre has been done to death… not another one,’ but “

The Way Way Back” separates itself from the field with a brilliantly written script and cast performances that are among some of the best you are likely to see in 2013. Directed by first-time directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon “The Way Way Back” is told through the eyes of awkward fourteen year old, Duncan (Liam Jones). Duncan is a loner and an outsider and he is hating the fact that his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), forces him to head to the beach for the summer where he is to stay at the beach-house of her bullying boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell).

Duncan is convinced that the summer is going to be a bore and early on, he spends most of his time trying to keep away from Trent and the zany over-sexed, over-drinking next door neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). But then he discovers Water Wizz, a local water theme park, and the park’s energetic but very lazy manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) who not only gives Duncan a jo, but also decides to work on the boy’s self-esteem… something that may come in handy seeing Duncan seems to have gained the attention of Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

While Nat Faxon and Jim Rash might be first time directors, they certainly aren’t first time screenwriters. Both worked on the award winning “The Descendants,” while Rash has also written for television shows “Saturday Night Live” and the hilarious “Community.” With those pedigrees in mind, it is hardly surprising that the pair have managed to mix the right amount of drama and comedy together with “The Way Way Back.” They touch on some really serious topics in this film – mental bullying for a figure head, teenage depression – but also at the same time incorporate some extremely witty material that will have fans of movies such as “Little Miss Sunshine” in stitches.

To Faxon and Rash’s credit, they also make sure this film, and its characters, never become clichés. The character of Owen is a perfect example of that. Normally the mentor figure in a film is a wise person ready to bestow wisdom, but here that character is a wise-cracking ‘loser.’ He looks more like a surfer dude than a theme park and has so many personal problems, he has staff members wanting to quit and a romantic interest, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who is questioning what she has ever seen in him. It’s unconventional, but it works.

The same can also be said about the ‘relationship’ between Trent and Duncan. Normally screenwriters will over-write a character like Trent. If he’s going to be abusive towards his future step-son, then they’ll make him physically abusive. Here Faxon and Rash have made Trent mentally abusive, something they brilliantly set-up in the opening scene where Trent tells Duncan he is a ‘three and not a six.’ The screenplay doesn’t scream at its audience that Trent is a prick, it doesn’t have to because Faxon and Nash have created great little things that do it subtly – scenes like the Candy Land scene and of course the fact that Trent is willing to cheat on Pam with his best friend’s wife, Joan (Amanda Peet). And while not to give anything away, it is that subtlety in the script that makes the ending of this film such a great watch.

The other thing that this script allows for is some wonderful acting performances. Liam James really announces himself as an acting talent to watch, while Allison Janney steals every scene that she is in. It’s also good to see Toni Collette putting the dismal “Mental” behind her with a wonderful performance, despite the fact that she is under-used. Steve Carell also puts some recent lame comedies behind him by going against type and trying his hand at some serious acting with the unlikable character of Trent; to his credit it’s something that he pulls amazingly well and here’s hoping it’s something he’s willing to do more of in the future. However, the standout acting performance in “The Way Way Back” is Sam Rockwell. He plays the emotionally challenged Owen alarmingly well and gets to deliver some of the best lines. When you think of Rockwell you always think of his more serious roles, like that in the movie “Moon,” but here he mixes drama and comedy really well, and hopefully he can be rewarded by picking up a few awards for this film – he truly deserves it.

If you’ve loved films like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,” then you are going to enjoy “The Way Way Back.” This is a smartly written, well performed film that separates it from a lot of the other coming-of-age films that are out there.