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26 August 2013

Life's a Beach

The Way Way Back is one of those films where the kids seem way older than their years, while the adults spend most of the film acting like teenagers, or at least college students on spring break. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also wrote the screenplay for The Descendants, The Way Way Back is a coming-of-age movie set in a seemingly idyllic Massachusetts beach community, which comes to seem like a prison for shy, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), our young hero.

Duncan is forced to spend the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her douchey boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) at Trent's summer house. His father seems to be more interested in his much-younger girlfriend, with whom he has run off, and Trent's barely concealed barbs are hardly working wonders for Duncan's fragile self-esteem. Steph and her friends ignore him and although he sees the neighbour's daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) as a potential ally, he decides she's probably way out of his league.

While Pam and Trent fool around, frolicking with the neighbours, Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), staying out drinking all night, Duncan tries to explore the limited charms of the small town. And before long, he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who has been the manager of the local water park, Water Wizz, for far too long. Like the other adults in the film, Owen acts like he's still 21, but unlike the others he actually seems to want to help Duncan, so he offers him a job working at Water Wizz, and slowly Duncan's confidence begins to grow.

All is not well at the summer house, however, and when Duncan catches Trent in the act of something that confirms he is indeed the tool we thought he was, the situation gets worse. Pam is caught between wanting to fix her son's unhappiness and wanting to please her boyfriend and retain the security their relationship offers. This part of the movie is a little heavy on the emo, but this is balanced out nicely by the Water Wizz scenes with the fast-quipping, happy-go-lucky Owen.

Two small points I learned from IMDb. First, the film was originally written under the title The Way Back (which was the first thing I thought of when I read about it), before being changed to The Way Way Back to avoid confusion. Second, it was originally supposed to be set in the early 1980s, but, for budgetary reasons, ended up being set in the present. The influence of the '80s lingers though: Water Wizz hasn't been upgraded since it was built in 1983; Trent's station wagon is hardly the most modern set of wheels on the road; Owen plays a vintage PacMan arcade game in a cafĂ© and quotes Bonnie Tyler to the kids queuing up for a ride at the water park; Duncan and his family play what must be the most bitter round of Candy Land ever to have taken place.

The Way Way Back has a very similar feel to The Descendants — right down to the removing of any pleasure or enjoyment from a beautiful beachside setting — and I really enjoyed it. In many ways, its UK end-of-summer release date works well, and the sharp script generated plenty of laughs from the audience, as well as the odd tear (not from me, on this occasion). James was impressive as the introverted teenager who comes out of his shell, but he had good support from Carell (whose character was impressively horrible) and Rockwell, and to some extent Collette.

It's very much an ensemble-cast movie, though. The two writer-directors have small roles as Water Wizz employees (Rash will only ever be Dean Pelton to me). Maya Rudolph makes an appearance as Owen's grumpy assistant manager and would-be lover, and Allison Janney steals many scenes as Betty, the bitter and overly frank, but well-meaning mother of Susanna.

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