It would be easy to dismiss The Way, Way Back as a formulaic, indie coming-of-age film. In fact, in a lot of ways it is. It was pleasantly surprising to find that, while this was the case, The Way, Way Back somehow pulls at all the right heartstrings and makes you care much more so than any other formulaic, indie coming-of-age film that has come down the pipeline in recent years.
Through it, the screenwriters allow their story and their characters to shine, trusting them to raise the film past its limits. Even with this, however, the film would have likely felt boringly contrived if not for incredible performances. Never has such a typical film with typical characters been so elevated by incredible acting.
Steve Carrell plays the mom’s boyfriend – a truly dickish, controlling, arrogant man. During the question and answer portion of the premiere, the writers mentioned that they wanted Carrell to play against his normal character. The result was a unique Steve Carrell performance that has further proven his range and talent as an actor. As the villain of the story, Carrell makes the audience really hate him while still making him believable and more than just a caricature.
Toni Collette plays the insecure, slightly desperate mother equally well. While her character, like many, had little to work with in terms of depth, there was no point in which I felt overly sorry for her. Instead, she manages to layer her character with some subtlety, making audiences understand her rather than feel sorry for her.
Allison Janney is incredible as the over-the-top neighbour with nary an appropriate comment to make. While characters like these have often been annoyances in films, Janney infuses her character with such honesty and love that you can’t help but feel like you want to know this person and hang out with her — and you understand why the characters in the film want to as well.
Sam Rockwell, as well, plays almost against his typical characters. As the childish water park owner who befriends and mentors young Duncan, Rockwell is brash, untethered, yet always showing a strong moral core. Rockwell’s transition from his comedic persona to his mentorship one was seamless and believable.
While not a unique story by any stretch of the imagination, The Way, Way Back is one of those rare films that manages to do it really, really well. It solidly captures the true coming-of-age story in small-town America with characters that, while not deeply developed, are thoroughly charming, likeable and heartwarming. Striking performances from the four main adults in the cast: Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell help to add gravitas and emotional resonance to this not-to-be-missed summer film.