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Is ‘The Way Way Back’ the Best Coming of Age Movie in Years?

Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney power sweet ode to youth, adversity

Some movies don’t age well for any number of reasons.

The special effects, for example, look so clunky it’s hard to fall under the movie’s spell. Others boast themes that no longer apply to modern life.

The 1984 charmer “Mr. Mom” falls into that category. Stay-at-home dads destroyed the movie’s premise.

The 2014 dramedy “The Way Way Back,” in contrast, only gets better with age. The film earned a respectable $21 million at the U.S. box office a decade ago but didn’t pierce the zeitgeist like other indie darlings.

That’s a shame. It’s also the perfect film for teenage boys caught between childhood and life’s next, imposing steps.

THE WAY WAY BACK: Official HD Trailer

Liam James stars as Duncan, a teenager forced to vacation with his single mother (Toni Collette) and her unctuous beau Trent, (Steve Carell, effectively cast against type).

Duncan is a mess. He’s awkward in that unmistakable teenage way, and he knows his mother has picked the wrong partner. Trent tries to empower Duncan by saying he’s a “3” out of “10” but can improve his lot in life and, by extension, his rating.

Father figures don’t get much worse than that.

Duncan’s misery lifts when he stumbles onto a gig at the Water Wizz park. His boss Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes Duncan under his wing, sensing a kindred spirit beneath the slumped shoulders and mop of hair.

THE WAY WAY BACK: "Is It a Homicide?"

“The Way Way Back” is frequently funny, but comedy isn’t the point. It’s a character study of a teen desperate for a lifeline. His father appears to have moved on to a new family, and his mother needs a partner so badly she’ll settle for one who won’t nurture Duncan in ways he desperately needs.

Add Allison Janney as a hard-partying parent with an uncomfortable quip for every occasion, and you have a film that captures adolescence in all its pain and glory.

A few moments test our twee meters, like how Duncan loosens up during a confrontation with local dancers. And the adorable girl next door (wonderfully played by AnnaSophia Robb) is almost too good to be true in how she sees past Duncan’s wall of insecurity.

Rockwell told The Guardian he channeled something he saw in the 1979 camp comedy “Meatballs” where Bill Murray bonded with a similar castoff, this time played by Chris Makepeace.

For this latest role in The Way, Way Back, he looked to the 1979 summer camp comedy Meatballs. “The relationship between Owen and Duncan is very similar to the relationship between the kid and Bill Murray in that film,” he explains. “There’s a few other archetypes, like Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears or Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose. It’s the grouchy adult who speaks to children like they’re adults.”

Coming-of-age films hold a special place in pop culture.

They’re instantly identifiable and connect with something inside us no matter how old we may be. They remind us that others have been there, too, and the journey is fraught with obstacles and, eventually, joy.

Several scenes in “The Way Way Back” might be hard to duplicate today. Nat Faxon, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Jim Rash, ogles a bikini girl in one scene to both Duncan and Owen’s bemusement.

Good luck greenlighting that moment now, even though it captures how the male mind works. 

Plus, Janney’s character constantly teases her teen son Peter about his “lazy eye,” a running gag sure to trigger cries of “ableist!”

But that’s life, warts and all, something “The Way Way Back” acknowledges with insight and warmth. The way Rockwell’s Owen makes Peter feel comfortable with his condition is a thing of beauty.

So is the film, one of the best coming-of-age yarns in quite some time.

5 Comments

    1. The moment when Sam Rockwell stands in front of Duncan to protect him from Steve Carell is priceless… and having the mom moved to the back of the car to be with her son is perfect.

  1. I’ve never heard of this movie, but in my defense, 2014 was a crazy year. Adding it to my watch list. Thanks for highlighting a good movie that isn’t a new release. It gives people another shot at enjoying a good story they may have missed the first time.

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