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The Way, Way Back

Sam Rockwell steals Sundance’s coming-of-age comedy

Jul. 14, 2013
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Summer vacation is the time when teens come of age: it’s a familiar theme in movies and for good reason. Teenagers often have life-altering summers, sometimes in the aftermath of high school graduation and sometimes, as in The Way, Way Back, a few years earlier. A favorite at this year’s Sundance festival, The Way, Way Back hits another familiar theme: the awkward duckling that finds its wings.

In human terms, the duckling, Duncan (Liam James), is a dork. A pimply 14-year-old with droopy hair, Duncan walks with hands in pockets and head bent slightly down; his tongue is heavy in the presence of strangers and positively leaden with girls. We meet Duncan en route to the beach house of his mom’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), a self-important jerk determined to demean his future stepson. Trent’s exercises in bucking up the boy reveal a streak of sadism beneath his show of responsibility.

The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age comedy, light in tone yet with little laughter until the appearance of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the nearby Water Wizz, a water park that saw its best days decades ago. Owen is the anarchic authority figure, a slacker rascal with a cynical tongue and a heart of gold. For no reason apparent at first, except a shared interest in PacMan, Owen takes Duncan under his wing, employing him at Water Wizz and drawing him out of his shell.

It’s not an easy task. Duncan is loaded down with unexpressed resentment over his parents’ divorce. Trent’s teenage daughter (Zoe Levin) is one of the gossip girls lounging on the beach and loathing the prospect of “babysitting” her unwanted future brother. The adults around Duncan are mostly no better than overgrown kids; mom (Toni Collette) has resigned herself to the creepy Trent because of her fear of being alone. Until encountering Owen, Duncan’s only recourse is to plug into his iPad and drown out the world.

Fortunately, there is another helper in addition to Owen. What coming-of-age movie would be complete without the prospect of romance? Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of Trent’s loud, boozy neighbor lady, keeps aloof from the gossip girls, reads books and shows interest in the awkward boy next door. Will Duncan learn to kiss—along with other life lessons—before returning home from Trent’s slightly hangdog resort town? The coming-of-age formula is in place, endearing but enlivened largely by Rockwell’s madcap, motor-mouthed performance. He’s The Way, Way Back’s entertaining wildcard.


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