Perhaps it’s because summer is still with us that the nostalgic carefree days of yesteryear are still very much in flavour at the box office with another coming-of-age film set in the sunshine, after The Kings of Summer release last week. Writing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have co-penned another poignantly funny feel-good story set among familiar strife, after the Oscar-winning The Descendants in 2011. This time they successfully have a go at directing too, beautifully balancing comedy with melancholy with some wonderfully colourful but very real characters in The Way Way Back that’s like ‘Summer Break for adults’, only with a kid forming the linchpin of sanity.
Shy 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) goes on summer vacation in New England with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his surly older daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Having a tough time fitting in and dealing with some ugly secrets, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the Water Wizz water park while dealing with his growing feelings for next-door neighbour Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
It’s another character-building road trip of highs and lows that reunites Little Miss Sunshine stars Carell and Collette, again playing problematic parents. Carell expertly portrays another against-type character, one if the most hateful to date in Trent who tries to control the situation in the most sociopathic and non-empathetic way. Collette is a mother trying to retain her own identity. The story centres on Duncan but uses the actions of the adults – who turn into irresponsible ‘teens’ themselves as soon as they see a bit of sun and sand, such as tragic lush Betty (Allison Janney at her finest) – to allow the youngster to begin developing into a rounded young man before our very eyes. With escapism comes a price, it seems, and it’s a lesson in responsibility.
Ironically, one of the most childish but refreshingly liberating kidults is Owen (delightfully played by Rockwell) who turns out to be the most responsible in the end – something this ‘big kid’ would baulk at hearing. The reason for this surprise maturity might be because both Duncan and Owen seek the same thing – stability – in order to help them progress individually to the next level; for Owen, this is being the kind of man his embattled deputy and on-off lover Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) needs to be happy.
All this world-changing drama is set in one of the most fun-filled vacation places in the world, a tired-looking water park to create a cradle of comfort to allow the nurturing of these rites of passages to manifest. Meanwhile, you can’t help but envy Owen and team (including eternal dude Roddy – Faxon himself) who seem to have the perfect life-work balance that’s missing from the other kidults’ existence, hence their impending foolishness.
Faxon and Rash’s story may be cut form the same cloth as others of the same ilk over the years, but this pair has a knack of molding genuine characters that you really care about watching and following their progress while laughing, cringing and sighing at them along the way. Grab this slice of volatile vacation heaven before the sun sets, complete with a great cast to boot: It’s a guaranteed sigh of cinematic contentment.