There is no question about it – teenagers are an awkward bunch. Whilst traversing the various horrors nature has in store for them, they also have to deal with a bizarre no-mans-land; they are no longer children who need everything done for them, but nor are they adults capable of doing everything themselves. This has made rich pickings for film makers since the 1950s when the term ‘teenager’ first came into use and since then the awkward teen drama has become something of a staple. The Way Way Back enters this overcrowded genre confidently and is a genuine pleasure to watch, with just the right amount of anguish thrown in before the comedy gets into full swing.
It is the summer holidays and Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged to the beach in New England by his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her completely horrible boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Whilst Pam enjoys getting drunk, smoking weed and having lots of sex, Duncan is abandoned and struggles with the domineering and passively aggressive Trent. When Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) the charismatic manager of a waterpark, he soon finds himself amongst friends and finally feels at home.
In The Way Way Back,quite realistically, the parents act like children embarrassing their kids no end with drunkenness, flirtation and drug abuse. As Pam enjoys her new found adolescence in her forties, the actual adolescent who should be having fun is struggling with the new man battling with him and winning his mother’s affection. Whilst Pam and Trent get drunk with their friends night after night, Duncan becomes increasingly isolated, unable to talk to the girl next door and unwilling to play with Betty’s humiliated son. This film deals with these issues of overcoming bullies and self-doubt with a humour and warmth that is bound to appeal to audiences.
The reason this film manages to work on both the dramatic and the comedic levels it aims for, is in no small part thanks to the penmanship and direction of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, last seen winning an Oscar for The Descendants. This is their first trip behind the camera and they know how to make the most of their extremely talented cast; Alison Janney sparkles on screen as Trent’s over-the-top neighbour Betty, intuitively knowing how much would be too much for such an exuberant character. Sam Rockwell as Owen the waterpark manager who refuses to take life seriously and shows a faith in Duncan that he cannot find at home steals the show confidently. Toni Collette’s Pam is a well hid bag of nerves, trying desperately to fit into a world in which she does not belong and to ignore the warning signs surrounding her regarding her relationship with Trent. Even the supporting cast in their small roles both at Duncan’s home and at the waterpark are brilliant and behave like real people would.
The weak links are unfortunately to be found in the lead and his antagonist. Liam James is gloriously morose as the miserable Duncan but he struggles against the acting master class taking place around him and is quite forgettable. Whilst Steve Carell is brilliant as the nasty Trent and shows a side most would never like to see again, his character is very much a Villain with a capital V. His disdain towards Duncan is clear from the start, but as the film goes on his actions within his group of friends and towards Pam show a man full of charm but lacking any quality. This two dimensional characterisation harms the film and by the end Trent is a walking cliché, filled with spite.
The Way Way Back is a must see for all comedy fans and isolated teenagers thanks to the brilliant performances by the cast and the laugh-out-loud script. It will also make inner-city teens wish they had a local adventure park they could work in one summer too, rather than earning their pennies at the much less fun local supermarket.The Way Way Back is out today.