Review: The Way Way Back - ‘Near-perfect portrait of adolescent angst’

Steve Carrell as Trent, Toni Collette as Pam and Allison Janney as Betty
Steve Carrell as Trent, Toni Collette as Pam and Allison Janney as Betty
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Drawing obvious comparisons with Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back is a bittersweet coming-of-age story that strikes a perfect balance between laughter and tears.

First-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have fashioned a near perfect portrait of adolescent angst that eschews mawkish sentimentality yet still manages to tug the heartstrings with aplomb.

Our affection for the film’s painfully shy, teenage hero is galvanised in a blistering opening scene in which the lad is asked by his mother’s new boyfriend to rate himself out of 10.

“I don’t know, six?” responds the lad nervously, after a considerable amount of deliberation. “I think you’re a three,” retorts the boyfriend coldly, who clearly hasn’t read the chapter on positive encouragement in his parenting handbook.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) wanted to spend the summer vacation with his father in San Diego. Instead, he’s being forced to tolerate a holiday on the East Coast with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s tearaway teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), who doesn’t want to be lumbered with a socially awkward misfit like Duncan when she could be sunbathing with her gal pals.

Feeling desperately alone in Trent’s beach house, Duncan ventures to a nearby Water Wizz theme park where the wise-cracking owner Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes pity on the miserable teenager and hires him for the summer.

“I need someone to do some odd jobs, clean up some vomit,” grins Owen.

Keeping the job secret from his mother, Duncan gains confidence under his reckless mentor, who only has eyes for his sassy employee, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). The lad musters the courage to strike up a conversation with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who lives in a nearby beach house with her boozy and indiscreet mother, Betty (Allison Janney). Meanwhile, Pam’s relationship with Trent shows signs of wear and tear, exacerbated by the continued presence of his vivacious friend Joan (Amanda Peet) and her clueless partner, Kip (Rob Corddry).

The Way Way Back is a delight.

THE WAY WAY BACK (12A, 103 mins) Comedy/Drama/Romance. Liam James, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Zoe Levin, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.

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