The Way Way Back Review

Posted: December 27, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

way_way_backWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

I don’t know why, but 2013 seems to have been the year of the coming of age story. To my knowledge, there have been four major films that fit this description. Mud, The Kings of Summer, The Way Way Back, and The Spectacular Now. Of these four, Mud by far looked the best and most respectable entry, with an interesting cast and premise, and the talented Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) in the director’s chair. On the other end of the spectrum were The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now which both looked really lame. Then you had The Way Way Back, which I never really knew how to feel about. One on hand, the trailer had a lot of the worst aspects of indie dramedies, but on the other hand there were a lot of talented people involved. Sam Rockwell got a lot of praise, Steve Carell in a type of role he never plays, and the screenwriters of The Descendants fresh off their Oscar win as the writers and directors. Ultimately, these factors were enough for me to give this film a chance.

Duncan (Liam James) is a shy 14-year old spending the summer in a small beach side town with his mom (Toni Collette), his step-father (Steve Carell), and his step-sister (Zoe Levin). Duncan finds little happiness with either the adults or the kids he is forced to hang out with and has nothing but disdain for his step-father. He spends most of his days biking around town before one day coming to a water park run by the fun loving Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen takes a liking to Duncan and gives him a job at the water park, where Duncan starts to come out of his shell and find some happiness.

One thing I can commend the filmmakers on is really making the Duncan character awkward. Too many films depict the awkward kid as being smart, funny, sensitive, and good looking, they’re just “misunderstood”. Duncan on the other hand is extremely socially awkward to the point where he can even be frustrating. I’m glad the film got that right, the problem is they don’t really give him much personality. He’s socially awkward, but his character traits sort of end there. Even after Owen begins to pull Sam out of his shell, he still seems more or less the same. Because of this, it can be hard to really root for him. Yeah he’s in a shitty situation and his step-father is especially horrible, but there’s not much to latch onto.

The characters are a problem throughout the film, mostly in that they don’t feel real. It took me awhile to really pinpoint what it is about the characters that make them ring hollow since they’re not cartoonish per say. Ultimately, the problem is these people aren’t really fleshed out in anyway. Duncan is the awkward kid, Owen is the cool uncle type, the mother is the struggling mom trying to keep the family together, the step father is the misguided asshole, the girl next door is the good looking one who should fit in but doesn’t. All of these characters only exist as archetypes and there never given much more than that.

The story here is also really predictable. I will give the film credit for actually having a relatively unpleasant opening thirty minutes. Not that these scenes are hard to watch, but this is just a consistent batch of Duncan getting shit on with little. However as soon as Duncan gets a job at the water park, it becomes crystal clear exactly how his character arc will play out. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of really contrived scenes that only happen in the movies, like a scene where Duncan has to break dance or a bit about a water slide in the film’s climax. I will admit, every so often a scene would have some charm and on Duncan’s journey there are some nice little moments such as a confrontation between him and his step-dad.

Of course, what everyone says about the film is how great Sam Rockwell is, and if you ask me these claims are a bit egregious. He’s good, don’t get me wrong. He’s very charming, likable, and he’s a fun personality, but his work isn’t really that impressive. The character doesn’t have any real complexities and Rockwell isn’t pushing himself as an actor at all. He’s fun to watch sure, but it isn’t a great performance. This is true of most of the cast. Toni Collette is fine as the struggling mother, but nothing she does is ever really exceptional. Allison Janney and co-writer Jim Rash each have small comedic roles which work fine and Liam James effectively portrays Duncan’s awkwardness. If any actor impressed me here though, it’s Steve Carell. Not that he’s delivering a masterful performance, but his asshole character is a far cry from the nice guy roles he usually plays. Carell does a good job keeping the character from being a cartoon while still being really unlikable.

Overall, The Way Way Back is a bad movie. The characters are thinly drawn, the arcs unoriginal, and the script very contrived. It doesn’t work as drama and it doesn’t work as comedy either. However it isn’t the kind of bad movie that truly pisses me off. The proceedings do have some heart, some charm, and a few moments which work. For some people, that will be enough. But this film gave me very little and as a result I can only give so much back.


  1. Others seemed to like it more than you. It is true it’s hard to create a realistic social outcast. Misunderstood? A lot of the time, they are offensive and annoying, too. I’m in no hurry to watch this one. Good review.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    It truly was the year for the coming-of-agers, and this was probably the funniest. Especially with Rockwell involved, a guy who never dials it down and we’re better-off for it. Good review.

  3. brikhaus says:

    You gave this a worse review than I did, unbelievable. You are absolutely right, though. Duncan is a completely one-dimensional awkward tool with virtually no redeeming qualities. Rockwell’s character is by far the highlight, but even his character is one-note. Since you mentioned Mud in the review, that is far and away the superior film.

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