The Way Way Back Review

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  • The Way Way Back film still


A typically spritely Sam Rockwell saves this otherwise bland beachy indie.

Schlepping through a middle American beach town is adolescent loser Duncan (Liam James). Duncan’s key activities are gawping at teenage princesses ("what are you looking at, perv?") and bearing witness to mum Pam (Toni Colette) getting walked over by boyfriend Trent — Steve Carrell playing against type as a seriously unforgivable piece of work. As if these underdog signposts were insufficient, the opening scene with our central modern family (Trent plus daughter and Pam plus son) driving out to their holiday home has Trent assigning Duncan three out of a possible 10. For what? For his entire being.

If you heard a noise, that would be the Personal Growth Time alarm. The pesky thing rings a lot during early scenes that show just how much Duncan sucks at life. The appearance of Allison Janney as the modern family’s beach town neighbour provides a joyous leavening of the Everything Sucks-scape. Her Betty is a fast-talking, cocktail-loving goodtime gal unashamed to direct scabrous wits at her own children. ("Just stare at the bridge of his nose. It’s what I do," she advises people who meet her young son with a lazy eye.) Betty is wheeled away from the action all too quickly but with any luck her legacy will be that yelling, "Press my laundry!" will catch on as a greeting.

Replacing Janney as the comic stand-in for a believable plot is Sam Rockwell. For some reason his waterpark attendant, Owen, takes an interest in walking sadsack, Duncan, giving him a cool job and accompanying lease of life away from domestic troubles. Owen uses the waterpark as a slapstick stage, and the silliness of his theatrics mushroom in scope and imagination. Part father figure, part guardian angel, full on Tasmanian devil of comic proportions, Owen spins Duncan into a different orbit where it’s possible to write a different script to the one dictated by family circumstances.

Persuasive as that may sound as a central thesis, there is not enough support from the other characters and their plot strands to hold it aloft. Pam and Trent’s dysfunctional relationship makes sense during one unhappy scene played by Collette with quiet desperation but mostly it’s a dreary charade. A girl nextdoor love interest exists to flesh out Duncan and SNL's Maya Rudolph does the same unrewarding thing for Owen.

Confrontations between this rabble come and go and nothing rings true. But there is one moment that sings with perfection. And that is Sam Rockwell reciting the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler’s 'Holding Out for a Hero' to a waterpark full of baffled youngsters. At that moment the rising odds have been fought and won.

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