Review of The Way Way Back (2013)

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By Christine Iannicelli

One of the most successful films showcased in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, The Way Way Back is a beautiful coming-of-age story about a shy preadolescent named Duncan (Liam James) who finds a confidante in a water park manager named Owen (Sam Rockwell).

Duncan is a lonely kid spending summer vacation at the beach with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his daughter.  He is miserable because he knows no one at the beach, save for his mother who is too busy drinking and partying with the neighbors to spend time with him.  Her boyfriend Trent is also very rude and condescending towards Duncan.  Eager to escape, Duncan goes on a bike ride and comes across a water park where he meets Owen, a childish but friendly man who exudes self-confidence.  Sensing that Duncan feels lost, Owen takes him under his wing and introduces him to a variety of supporting characters (including Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who wrote and directed the film).  It is here at this water park that Duncan manages to come out of his shell and find a place where he truly belongs.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Every character felt like a real person to me, from the over-the-top drunken neighbor (played by Allison Janney) and her wayward children to an exasperated co-worker of Owen’s (played by Maya Rudolph).  Duncan’s mother particularly struck a chord with me.  I disliked her character for her weak nature and failure to see her how unhappy her son was, but part of me understood why she was with Trent.  She’s a single mom, alone in the world.  She’s not blind to her boyfriend’s infidelity and controlling nature, but who else does she have to turn to?  Like Duncan, her self-esteem is wrapped up in the people around her.  The Way Way Back is a story of her growth and redemption as much as it is Duncan’s.

It took me a while to warm up to Duncan, whose personality first came off as so aloof and awkward that I couldn’t stand to watch him.  Mid-way through the film, however, I realized that Duncan is just lacking a positive male role model in his life.  When he has that, Duncan comes to life.  Sam Rockwell, to me, is the real star of this film.  I was drawn to him from the beginning, as Duncan was.  He’s sarcastic and lazy, but also a genuinely warm and loving guy.  There are comedic moments where he wise-cracks and rambles endlessly to help Duncan lighten up and feel at ease, and other serious situations where he’s quiet and supportive to give Duncan the opportunity to vent.  He represents everything this boy could be when he grows up, and while their friendship is short-lived, it’s one I’m sure Duncan will remember for a lifetime.

Check out The Way Way Back yourself, available at the Gabriele Library.

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