A sweet summer film that explores teenage awkwardness, finding your way and the importance of family. Duncan, played by Liam James is a lonely 14 year old boy, with a self reliant attitude, unsure where his life should be heading. He leaves on a summer vacation with his weak-willed mother Pam and her pretentious new boyfriend Trent, complete with Trent’s demanding daughter.
Immediately Duncan is presented as the cast off, a boy that denies himself the affection of those around him and proceeds to have little fun in the adult fuelled nightmare. It appears that Duncan finds solace in being by himself and observing those around him. His mother, although somewhat kind-hearted, brutally ignores her son’s obvious demand for family. She turns a blind eye to Trent’s barbaric taunting. Trent, played by Steve Carell is a tanned, egotistic snob. As the film begins with Trent stating that Duncan is a three out of ten, it is clear that there is no room for character growth. Carell is normally seen playing timid unsure of himself characters as seen in Dan in Real Life, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Crazy Stupid Love. A rarity to see Carell step into the shoes of a character that singles out and humiliates all these characteristics in Duncan.
Duncan doesn’t demand the sympathy that the audience give him. Although he sulks around, back hunched, gawky even in his own presence, we understand that he doesn’t fit in with the beach crowd or comply with the social conventions that seem apt for the vacation. Instead, Duncan is happier riding along on a pink bicycle, complete with sparkly tassels. He holds his head high and the whole notion of the film lifts slightly and we see that Duncan is a character that doesn’t care about what anyone thinks. His reserved character is instantly recognised by one of the girls, Susanna. Although she looks the part and follows the beach crowd, Susanna seems as broken as Duncan and as their friendship forms they develop an innocent understanding of the cruel world.
The neighbouring house presents the eccentric, alcohol loving Betty, played by Allison Janney. She is seen taunting her children, openly and without hesitation, yet it remains acceptable and her children seem to respect her. In the moments when the characters turn their heads, Betty’s children show small signs of affection to their mother. Although Betty is a character that is desperate for fun, she is simple, childlike and needs her children – she embodies everything that Pam doesn’t. Duncan doesn’t feel that his mother needs him and we’re not sure she does either.
It isn’t until the entrance of Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, that we feel a change of pace. Owen is a fun loving, goofy guy, adamant on creating laughs wherever he goes. He is the manager on Water Wizz, the water park close to the beach house. He is an unlikely friend to Duncan, he sees that he is lonely and doesn’t give up on breaking Duncan out of his shell. Duncan’s bond with Owen is essential in Duncan’s development as a character, he becomes more sure of himself and feels that there is a place for him in the company of those who truly care. Owen is equally affected by the presence of Duncan, he realises he has to grow up and take control of his life.
The Way, Way Back is a comedic, heart warming story about finding confidence in who you are, following what you believe and friendship in places you must discover yourself. Duncan is truly an inspiration for every awkward teen and misguided adult. A summer must watch, that will leave you teary and with a long lasting sense that life is what you make it.