THE WAY, WAY BACK has earned a lot of three stars reviews in the UK, partly inspired by an exchange between the fourteen year-old protagonist, Duncan (Liam James) and his step-dad-to-be, Trent (Steve Carell). On a scale of one to ten, Duncan rates himself a ‘six’ but Trent rates him a ‘three’. I’d give it a four out of five. It elicited an emotional reaction (OK, I blubbed like a leaky faucet at the end) and so many films don’t.
This sensitive, heart-warming, tear-sucker of a coming of age film is written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, responsible for adapting THE DESCENDANTS for Alexander Payne a few years back. Both Rash and Faxon are actors turned screenwriters, not exactly in the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck mould – at least Rash is in his forties and is a ringer for Terry O’Quinn in THE STEPFATHER - but definitely inspired by the GOOD WILL HUNTING Oscar winners.
It begins with Duncan being driven with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette) and half-sister-to-be to step pop’s beach house in Cape Cod. The place has nothing to recommend it for Duncan, who is shy around girls and made to feel more awkward on the beach by the friends of his sister-to-be, Steph (Zoe Levin). The girl next door, Susanna (Annasophia Robb) is friendly but older than him. Release comes when he takes a girl’s bike out for the day and discovers the 1980s-built Water Whiz water park
There he meets and is given a job by the owner-manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell) who becomes his Jedi master. His first job is to break up some cronking near the pool – kids are dancing and have laid down some unauthorised cardboard. In the ‘confrontation’ that follows, Duncan has to show off his ‘pop and lock’ which gets him a reputation and some respect.
There is one shot of a mobile phone and a reference to the 2011 remake of FOOTLOOSE, but THE WAY, WAY BACK feels like a period film. Trent drives a Buick. The local arcade has a Pacman machine. REO Speedwagon is popular and Duncan has a cassette player rather than an I-Pod. You would be forgiven for thinking it is set in the late 1980s – it has a definite retro vibe – but you accept the double time-scheme easily enough.
The adults dominate the community. There is a pushy neighbour, Betty (Allison Janney) whose former friend called her a ‘C – U – Next Tuesday.’ (This film is rated 12a in the UK, but pushes the limit.) Trent gets extra friendly with another holiday home dweller (Amanda Peet) and Duncan sees it.
Neither his mom nor Trent knows how Duncan spends his days. He does eventually make friends with Peter, a twelve year-old with an eye-patch whom he takes the park at night. He bonds too with Susanna (Peter’s sister), who discovers his secret job. Owen has his own immaturity problems. He solves crises, like three kids stuck in a pipe, through fun and does not act as if a lawsuit could be waiting around the corner; he frustrates his colleague (Maya Rudolph) who may also be his lover. What he isn’t, though, is a hypocritical ass-hole. Duncan eventually stands up to his mother’s lover, who turns out to be doing him a big favour – and boy he makes him know it – given the courage by having a positive role-model.
Summers have to end and there is a big finish. Can one person really pass another in an enclosed water tube slide – let’s find out. Feelings are hurt, but by the end, you feel that the characters are better equipped to deal with life’s compromises.
So, yeah, I dug THE WAY, WAY BACK and if that puts me out of step with my fellow critics, so what? Have you seen my ‘pop and lock’? Maybe not, I’m very old.
Reviewed at Clapham Picturehouse, Sunday 25 August 2013 (11:00am screening)