Reviewed by Gregory Keer
My sister and I used to sit in the way back of our parents’ Ford station wagon. Like a lot of kids did, I felt like I was on an amusement park ride, going backwards. Of course, there were those times when it was embarrassing as hell facing the driver of the car behind us, so it was good that our parents traded the wagon in before I hit adolescence.
Duncan, the 14-year-old boy at the center of the coming of age film The Way, Way Back, doesn’t have it as easy as I did. He’s sitting in the last row of a station wagon at an age when he’s trying to mature while most of the grown-ups around him act like impulsive children. Played with slow-growing confidence by Liam James, Duncan is much like I was as an adolescent — awkward but feeling older in my head than my appearance. In this truly wonderful comedy-drama, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for writing, with Alexander Payne, the screenplay for The Descendants), Duncan learns to make the most of a summer vacation in which his mom (Toni Collette) is dating a conflicted jerk (Steve Carell), and Duncan is worrying about a possible romance (with the character gracefully portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb) as well as concern about when he will next see his father. The kid really needs someone to take him under his wing to show him how to enjoy life in a world in which all the adults are unhappy. Cue Owen, the man-child who hires Duncan at the local water park and helps Duncan find self-worth and age-appropriate fun. Sam Rockwell is so freakin’ good as Owen, it seems high time that this dude get his Oscar nomination since he consistently colors his characters with texture and wit.
I highly recommend this film as one parents should see with their children, age 13 on up. It raises issues of family, love, and maturity in a way that isn’t heavy-handed but very honest. I saw The Way, Way Back with my wife and my way-back partner, my sister, and her husband. We all experienced it with laughs and tears and the feeling that it depicted a universal experience worth sharing with our older children.