THE WAY, WAY BACK. Starring Liam James, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell and Alison Janney. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Rated M (coarse language). 103 minutes.
Troubles of a 14 year old adolescent? Again? Well, yes. But more interestingly explored than usual – and with some nicer touches.
Liam James is particularly convincing as Duncan, travelling to a holiday house on the Masssachusets Coast with his mother (Toni Collette) who has taken up with a divorced father, Trent, (Steve Carrell) and his rather self-centred teenage daughter. Duncan is sitting in the back of the car when Trent asks him how he would rate himself from one to ten. He tries six. He is a rather lugubrious looking boy and is dismayed when his prospective stepfather tells Duncan he thinks he is a three. And it rankles.
At first, the holiday is a disaster for Duncan. He is supportive of his mother, angry with Trent, putting up with his daughter. Then there is the extraverted-off-the-page next door neighbour (Alison Janney at her outrageously exuberant best) and her son with a cast in his eye and the somewhat unhappy daughter (AnnaSophia Robb). They all go into the mix for some very serious episodes and some humorous episodes to offer some balance.
But the best of the comedy and drama takes place at the theme swimming pool, Water Wizz, where Duncan comes across Owen (Sam Rockwell, with the touch of the zany, but with a while lot of sympathy), who befriends him, helps him work at Water Wizz (without his mother knowing) and the boy comes alive, is not literal in everything he hears, finds friends, including the girl from next door, opens up to be boy he could become. His communication with Owen is very effective, a father-figure when he needs one, not paternalistic but offering sensible advice and affirming him.
But, there are the heavy scenes, especially at the beach, where Trent is exposed as a thoughtless cad, and Duncan, beginning to defend his mother, upbraids her for not standing up for herself and for running away from crises. He surprises himself – and us – with this highly emotional and public outburst.
Audiences will enjoy various parts of the film depending on whom they are identifying with, the older generation or the younger. The screenplay highlights the vulnerability of a woman abandoned by her husband, trying to cope with her morose son, and testing the possibilities of a new relationship and being hurt and frustrated by it but not having the courage of the strength to do much about it. Toni Collette is particularly good at communicating the feelings and frustrations of this character. It is a surprise to see Steve Carrell playing such an obnoxious and fickle character as Trent. But it is Sam Rockwell who shows how someone very ordinary can have the power and the strength of character to enable a sad boy to begin to find himself.
The ending brings some kind of resolution but is still open.
The film was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The former plays Owen’s co-worker at the Water Wizz. Jim Rash plays the entertainingly hypochondriac, Lewis, who is always threatening to leave his kiosk – but doesn’t.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 1 2013.