Drawing obvious comparisons with Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back is a bittersweet coming-of-age story that strikes 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 neighbouring 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.
Faxon and Rash’s first feature navigates a haphazard path through Duncan’s growing pains with tenderness and affection. The script spares the characters few blushes as they seek the tiniest glimmers of self-fulfilment.
James delivers an impressive, emotionally raw performance, and he is the perfect foil for Rockwell’s wise-cracking man-child. Janney is a hoot as the mother from hell, who has no concept of personal boundaries or social graces when the liquor is flowing.
She scoffs at the health risks of overexposure to the sun - ‘Screw cancer! I want to be even golden brown everywhere!’ - and humiliates her self-conscious, cross-eyed son (River Alexander) by telling Duncan to ‘just stare at the bridge of his nose’.
This quirky tale will have you laughing one minute and will tug at your heart strings the next. There’s no doubt here, a definite ten out of ten.