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REVIEW: 'The Way Way Back' Successfully Captures the Essence of Youth

This coming of age film manages to capture the incapturable: what it's like to be young, the simple joys of summer, and the awkwardness that is your first crush.

By: Jake Horowitz
Published: July 4th, 2013 in Culture » Film » Reviews
The Way Way Back

Summer is intangible, youth is fleeting, and the memories of both fade almost as quick as they came. But hey, that's a little depressing for a movie review so let me back up a little.

The Way Way Back, written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, is this summer's newest coming of age film that attempts to capture the incapturable. That is, what it's like to be young, the simple joys of summer, and the awkwardness that is your first crush. While many coming of age movies try to capture the essence of these things and fail, The Way Way Back is different in that it not only succeeds, it’s exceptionally funny as well.

The Way Way Back follows teenager Duncan, played by The Killing's Liam James, who goes to a beach town to live with his mother (Toni Collette) and her not-so-nice boyfriend (Steve Carell) for the summer. While the two of them essentially forget that he exists and go off to drink and get stoned all day, Duncan finds refuge at a local water park where he becomes friends with its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell).

The Way Way Back succeeds right off the bat by effectively depicting Summer in the way we all nostalgically picture it in our minds, almost making it a character unto itself a la Woody Allen and New York City. Roasting marshmallows, playing board games, drinking lemonade, and going to water parks. Though we might not do these things very often (or ever) they're all a part of our collective memory of Summer and they immediately evoke a feeling in us that very few movies are able to replicate. It helps that this movie is being released right at the beginning of the season, sure, but directors Rash and Faxon have still managed to create a sense of longing in all of us for that perfect Summer.

Although, that's not to say that Duncan is having the perfect Summer. In fact, he's having quite a terrible Summer and Liam James is still the master of playing miserable since his time on The Killing. James does great work here and helps us really feel for Duncan who is constantly left out, embarrassed, and outright bullied by the people around him. Thanks to the solid script, direction, and performance by James, The Way Way Back also captures the awkwardness of youth and shows a side to the coming of age story that many movies leave out; it's not all fun and games.

So within the first 20 minutes of The Way Way Back we're treated to a perfectly crafted representation of Summer and a flawless depiction of what it's like to be a teenager, but that's only where the movie really starts to get going. Once Duncan gets to the water park and meets Sam Rockwell's Owen, The Way Way Back transforms from a nostalgic coming of age film to a nostalgic coming of age comedy.

Rockwell, who has never had a bad performance in his life, is at the top of his game here as the childish and immature Water Wizz manager. When he's not with his seemingly on-again off-again girlfriend, played by Maya Rudolph, he is cracking jokes at a rate not heard since Superbad and making Duncan feel as if this is the only place that he belongs. Rockwell manages to put a spin on the coming of age mentor role here and be the wise-cracking yet still literally wise guy that pushes Duncan to come out of his shell and finally have a good time. He's fast, he's witty, he's nuanced, and he's all the other verbs that can be used to describe one of the greatest working actors today.

In the end, The Way Way Back does everything it attempts to do perfectly without a single misstep. Though the coming of age drama has become a bit bloated lately and many films seem to think that the only way to depict teenage life is with drama, drama, and more drama, The Way Way Back proves that you can still have a meaningful and personal film without cutting back on the comedy, imagery, and nostalgia that makes all of us wish it could stay Summer forever.

Related articles: The Way Way Back, Coming of Age, Comedy, Summer, Youth, Teenager, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, The Killing, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Liam James, Sam Rockwell
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