Movie Review: The Way, Way Back


A teenage boy is dragged along to his mom’s boyfriend’s beach house for the summer and discovers the Water Wizz water park, where he finds somewhere he fits in.


Jim Rash & Nat Faxon, 2013

This is the directorial debut from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton from Community), one of those perfect summer, coming-of-age stories that seems nostalgic for another era. Honestly, I couldn’t even figure out when it was set until they actually mentioned that it was in the present day. In it Duncan (Liam James, aka the old young Shawn from Psych) goes to the beach with his meek mother Pam (Toni Collette), asshole stepfather who calls him a 3 out of 10 Trent (Steve Carell), and his bratty daughter. While there he meets his drunken, mad and hilarious next door neighbour (Allison Janney, who steals every scene she’s in) and her pretty daughter (AnnaSophia Robb as “that one girl who reads books”) and lazy-eyed son (River Alexander, also hilarious). Honestly, I’d be happy if the whole film were about their wacky adventures, but instead we have to suffer through a number of tense and awkward family situations as the relationship between Pam and Trent becomes increasingly strained. He meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an adult who actually ahs fun and takes an interest in his well-being, and starts working at the water park Owen owns, where he actually does crazy things like smiling and having fun.


The movie takes a while to get going, but once it picks up it provides some moments of humour and sweetness. There’s a moment towards the end that really touched me, but it’s a long time getting there. The heartfelt and humorous moments are few and far between – you can see why Water Wizz is “the only place Duncan’s happy”, because it’s the only place the film has any fun (I was honestly surprised the first time he smiled), with the exception of every time the brilliant Allison Janney is on screen. Apparently her role was largely and it was cut back because she’s such a scene stealer, and that’s absolutely true – she dominates every one of her scenes with her loud, boozy and brilliant single mother. Liam James does a good line in teenager, nailing the cross between advance civilisation and their ape ancestors – his gorilla walk and his dance moves are brilliant, and he grunts appropriately the rest of the time. Sam Rockwell has fun with his sympathetic role, and Jim Rash is another scene stealer in his small role. It just felt green, with the Oscar-winning Jim Rash and Nat Faxon serving up cliched fare here, and long artsy scenes aren’t going to cut it. I wanted more payoff and less set up. Steve Carell’s stepfather is a paper thin villain. There’s also a fairly limited line in women – Toni Collette was sympathetic but difficult to like, and AnnaSophia Robb didn’t have much to do. It’s a boys’ own movie that wants to be a classic of the 70s or 80s but doesn’t quite get there.

This is a fine by-the-numbers coming of age movie that doesn’t live up to its ambitions.

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