Most of us have seen so many coming of age dramas that we could probably count off the clichés on our fingers as the latest entry in the genre plays out. There’s the awkward youth, who doesn’t really fit in with his family and is usually lost in their own life. A mentor usually comes along to guide them, whether they are a member of the family or an outside influence. You can bet that there’s going to be a slowly developing romance at some point as well.
Sound like a movie you’ve seen before? Well, imagine a movie that comes along, using all of these standards, and yet still manages to be surprising for the simple fact that it uses them effectively, almost to the point where you don’t realize it’s built of the same material of several other similar movies. With “The Way, Way Back,” the latest film from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, that’s just the kind of surprise one gets.
The awkward youth, Duncan (Liam James), is trying to get used to his mother’s (Toni Collette) new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). In an effort to get them all to bond together, Trent invites them to go with him and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), to his beachhouse for the summer. The attempt doesn’t go over particularly well, causing him to seek solace outside of the house. This leads him to a local waterpark where he encounters Owen (Sam Rockwell), a manager of the park that he has already encountered by chance twice before.
They strike up a strange relationship that results in Owen offering Duncan a job. Without telling anyone where he goes every day, he disappears for hours at a time to do odd jobs around the park. Thanks to his new job and his relationship with Owen, Duncan starts coming out of his shell. Whereas before he had been unwilling to say much, now he starts to open up, not only to Owen, but also to Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of their neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). Even with all the problems going on in his life, he feels the happiest he’s been in a long time while at the park. If only his relationships at home were going as well.
So what makes “The Way, Way Back” particularly different from other coming of age dramas? On the surface, nothing really, but if you look deeper, you’ll notice some key elements. As you can see, pretty much all of the clichés I mentioned earlier are here. However, the screenplay by Faxon and Rash injects the standard tale with a good dose of humor while putting these clichés to good use. Duncan may seem like the typical outsider at first, but as we see, sometimes it can be as simple as finding the right person to talk to that ends up being the triggering mechanism for an important life change.
He doesn’t fit in with his family or Trent and Steph. He doesn’t talk to his mother much and doesn’t even seem particularly upset when he worries her by staying out for several hours at a time. Steph wants nothing to do with him and his relationship with Trent isn’t getting anywhere. However, when he comes across Owen, something sparks. A good possibility as to why could simply be because Owen seems adrift in his own life, not wanting to take responsibility for anything. In a sense, he’s stuck where he is, and as we learn at the very beginning of the film, Trent thinks of Duncan in a similar fashion (i.e. he’s not doing much with his life).
His relationship with Susanna is a particularly interesting one as well. Awkward at the start, he bumbles his way through their first conversation, but as he comes out of his shell, their talks become smoother, until you begin to realize that there’s something more there. She basically ends up being another soul who needs someone to talk to. Her alcoholic, flamboyant mother isn’t quite enough, and her bossy friends who apparently have to do everything at the same time certainly aren’t giving her what she requires. When someone like Duncan comes along, she sees the opportunity for a real friend and takes advantage of it.
Aside from the screenplay, the other important elements that will determine how successful such a story will be are the performances. Liam Jones does an admirable job as the lost teen, providing all of the outcast behavior needed to fit the part. Carell, Collette, and Janney provide a good supporting team of characters for him to interact with, leaving their individual impressions in certain key scenes throughout the film.
However, the best performance of the film belongs to Sam Rockwell as the quirky and bizarre Owen. His performance ends up helping to elevate what could have been a fairly ordinary drama into something more. Rockwell has been a rather underrated actor for a long time, giving great performances in films like “Moon,” “Snow Angels,” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Oscar nomination come his way for his latest, which is a wonderful mix of subtle humor and equally-subtle character development. Truly one of his best to date.
The last screenplay we saw from Faxon and Rash was the disappointing “The Descendants,” which ended up failing to capture the emotion that the story required, but for “The Way, Way Back,” they’ve succeeded in not only creating the emotional attachment to the characters, but also in blending the humor and drama together without having one overpowering the other. As a result, they’ve crafted one of the best films of the year thus far. This may seem like just another coming of age drama, but if you give it a shot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that's just the slightest bit fuzzy in some places, but not enough to effect the viewing experience. For the most part, it's crisp and clear with the colors looking vibrant. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little on the soft side, so you may need to turn it a little higher than normal. Other than that, it sounds fantastic with all layers mixed perfectly.
The Making of The Way, Way Back: An outstanding 30-minute look behind the scenes featuring interviews with cast and crew. Most of them focus on co-writers/co-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon as they take you from the beginning of the project in 2005 to its premiere at Sundance earlier this year. Very in-depth and informative. Definitely worth your time.
Deleted Scenes: Three cut scenes that total about three minutes. These were pretty pointless scenes, so it's easy to see why they were trimmed. Glad to see that Faxon and Rash could tell when something wasn't working out well.
Behind the Scenes Featurettes: Tour of the Water Park, The Filmmakers: Jim and Nat, and Ensemble: Three short featurettes that don't really get into much depth. Most of it is footage from the film and snippets of the interviews from the longer featurette. There is a little bit of new material here, but you're better off just watching the 30-minute "Making of."
"The Way, Way Back" is a breath of fresh air for the coming of age genre that comes to Blu-ray in outstanding quality, and with the addition of the in-depth behind the scenes featurette, a great release is made even better. If you didn't get a chance to see this little gem during its limited theatrical release then there's no better time than the present to grab yourself a copy and enjoy one of the best films of the year right in your own home.
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Only God Forgives, Drug War, A Hijacking, American Horror Story: Asylum, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Curse of Chucky, Fantastic Voyage, The Croods, This is the End, Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition
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This review is based on a copy of the Blu-ray received for reviewing purposes.