Summer flick brings laughs, emotion way way back

by David Dixon

Courtesy of Claire Folger/TwentiethCenturyFox/MCT

Charlie Chaplin’s legendary silent film “The Kid” began with the opening words, “A comedy with a smile – and perhaps a tear.” That classic line is a perfect way to describe the refreshing coming-of-age story “The Way Way Back.”

Duncan (Liam James) is a shy 14-year-old boy who is forced to go on a summer trip with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), to a nicely furnished beach house in East Wareham, Mass. The problem is that they are staying with Pam’s jerk of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), who treats Duncan like dirt. One random afternoon, Duncan befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), a laid-back manager of the water park Water Wizz. Duncan soon gets a job at the park and loves the environment so much that it becomes his home away from home.

The key to the success of “The Way Way Back” is the funny duo, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The Oscar winners not only wrote the script, but directed the picture and even co-starred as two employees at Water Wizz. What is remarkable is how masterfully they use different styles of humor throughout Duncan’s journey.

Outside of Water Wizz, the laughs are generally low-key and have the same authentic vibe that was displayed in Faxon and Rash’s script of “The Descendants.” The exception to the rule is Allison Janney’s hysterical performance as Trent’s neighbor, Betty. She has so many well-timed one-liners that it might take several viewings to catch all her jokes.

At Water Wizz, the comicalness is significantly broader. The wit tends to come at a significantly faster pace and there are even some priceless physical sight gags that happen at unexpected moments. The balance between these two contrasting tones is smartly handled and could not have been possible without Faxon and Rash.


A lot of early buzz has been focused on Carell playing the most unsympathetic role of his career to date. It’s a rather gutsy depiction because right off the bat it’s clear that Trent is a pain in the butt, who is disrespectful to Duncan. Trent is the kind of guy who comes across as insincere even when he is trying to be nice.

James is likeable and authentic as the antisocial Duncan. His arc is moving, especially when he begins to develop confidence, which he expresses subtly.

As good as Carrell and James are, Rockwell is simply a force of nature as the fun slacker, Owen. He has the delivery of a great stand-up comedian and says many good-natured memorable quotes.

What makes Rockwell shine even more are some of his final moments with James. His interactions with the young performer are so genuine and powerful your eyes might mist because of these bittersweet encounters.

“The Way Way Back” is an impressive debut for directors Faxon and Rash with a lot of universal appeal. Be sure to check out this beautiful uplifting experience.