by Gareth Negus
There are different kinds of teen movie: the kind aimed at teenagers, and the kind that are about teenagers but aimed at adults. Then there’s the kind that fall somewhere between the two. The Way, Way Back is one of those.
The film stars Liam James as 14-year-old Duncan, reluctantly dragged on holiday for the summer with his mom (Toni Collette), his mom’s hectoring and unlikable new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter. After spending some time moping around being miserable, Duncan chances across the Water Wizz amusement park, where the manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes him under his wing.
Miserable 14-year-olds are no fun to hang around with (even most miserable 14-year-olds would agree with that, if they ever spoke) and not much fun to watch on screen. So it takes a while to engage with the film’s protagonist, and the situation isn’t helped by the fact that we suspect we could be having more fun watching Collette, or Allison Janney who plays the oft-sozzled divorcee next door. Instead, we get to watch the adults through Duncan’s eyes, as they drink too much, and lie to themselves and each other – a narrative device also seen recently in What Maisie Knew. Fortunately, the film, like its lead, opens up and becomes somewhat less awkward once it spends more time at the Water Wizz with Rockwell, who naturally provides some helpful life lessons under his happy-go-lucky, man-child style of management. Naturally, this also helps him befriend the pretty girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb).
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who co-wrote the screenplay of The Descendants), The Way, Way Back doesn’t offer anything that hasn’t been done many times before. The biggest shock is that it is set in the present day (though this is apparently only for budgetary reasons); everything about it feels like a period piece, from the title to the ‘after that summer, nothing would ever be the same’ plot (it is perhaps most reminiscent of the 1980s-set Adventureland). It feels like a screenplay by someone reflecting on their own youth, and is therefore speaking more to their own generation than the next one. That may equally be true of the films of, say, John Hughes, but the likes of The Breakfast Club are focussed entirely on the young characters, without adults and their problems muddying the water. The Way, Way Back is an enjoyable enough watch, with entertaining performances from Rockwell, Janney, Collette and Carell. It’s amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny, and holds the interest without being particularly dramatic. There’s nothing wrong with a film that is happy to settle for being nice, but it doesn’t make a trip all the way to the cinema essential.
The Way, Way Back is on general release from today.
Gareth Negus tweets at http://twitter.com/GarethNegus