There’s nothing more re-done than a coming-of-age comedy. Yet The Way Way Back, like Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks before it, is one of the rare ones that, despite treading familiar territory (it can’t help but feel like a younger version of Adventureland, particularly in relation to its amusement park setting), boasts such a tender, acute script and well-rounded characters that it’s impossible not to succumb to its charms and harsh-but-true honesty.
Introverted 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is whisked away on a summer vacation with his insecure mum, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and her boyfriend’s pompous daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), against his wishes. Unable to be his self, Duncan finds solace at Water Whizz, and with its manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes him under his wing and slowly teases him out of his well-worn shell.
Like they did so well with The Descendants, screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also make their directorial debut here), construct a narrative that’s so well layered, so well read up on, that it’s brutal in its authenticity. The character of Duncan, who’s so well played by James, is the heart and soul of the film, with the narrative cleverly illustrating down to a tee the fears, apprehensions and anxieties felt by a 14-year-old who’s been left crippled by years of self-doubt and oversight.
The fact that Faxon and Rash flesh out the supporting characters makes The Way Way Back even more impressive, while further adding depth to his own story. The way in which his mother is constantly walked over and the lack of respect his Trent accords Duncan with makes his self-doubt understandable, while the father-like love Owen bestows on him rationalises his slow transformation from stiff recluse to a far more confident teenager. And, too, results in scenes of pure zest and wit.
The sub plots may not all work (his romance with AnnaSophia Robb’s Susanna, for example, often feels stilted and underdeveloped), but it’s to their credit that barely any of the supporting cast are wasted or overlooked. It’s without a doubt that The Way Way Back is at times heartbreaking in its honesty and profundity. But that, and the more comical, heartwarming moments that are sprinkled throughout – make it all the more rewarding and, above all else, well worth investing in.