Teenhood in movies is a hard thing to get right. Real teen years are full of awkwardness, with lots of fumbling over words and changing bodies. But cinematically speaking, even the geekiest of geeks often looks prettier than any of the D&D dungeon dwellers you went to high school with. High school students tend to look older, too, with actors in their 20s playing a stage of life they aged out of long ago.
But something interesting has happened recently. Several movies out this year feature teenage characters who are actually teenaged, and who behave with all the awkwardness you’d expect, with parents who are just as surprised and baffled by their offspring as ours were.
Of these, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back offers the truest performances by its teen and adult cast members. It’s the story of Duncan (Liam James), a shy 14-year-old stuck in a beach town for the summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her tool of a boyfriend (Steve Carrell). Duncan gets a job at the local water park, run by charismatic man-child Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes Duncan under his wing and helps him get the confidence he needs to stand up for himself.
The Way, Way Back has plenty of awkward bits of its own, but remains a touching, winning movie that’ll warm your heart and charm your pants off. Faxon and Rash proved with their Oscar-winning script for The Descendants that their strengths lie in wit, gentle humor and relationships that feel complex and real. Their latest film has those same features, boosted by some excellent performances by its gifted cast.
As Owen, Sam Rockwell steals scenes left and right, doing his very best Bill Murray while also coloring the character with his own specific sensibilities. The always fun Rockwell is a perfect fit for his role. Carell, on the other hand, does a notable job playing against his usual nice guy type as Trent. He brings equal amounts of humanity and downright jerkitude to his character. These two are the movie’s comedic heavyweights, and they’re more than up to the job of carrying the movie (though they have plenty of help from peformers like Maya Rudolph and Rash, perhaps best known for playing Community’s Dean Pelton).
If the cast has a weak link, it’s James’ performance as Duncan. He does a good job of communicating Duncan’s poor conversation skills, unwieldy bodily movement, and social ineptitude. But when the script requires emotional outbursts or moments of growth, James just doesn’t seem able to make that switch. His awkwardness can just as easily come off as stiff acting, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.
The Way, Way Back has a solid script that accurately depicts, with great sympathy, how hard it is to be a young teen, especially one who lacks a compassionate, confident role model. It’s also got an excellent supporting cast who plays up the laughs to hysterical effect, but also excels at conveying the movie’s nuances and emotional depths.
Unfortunately, its young star is not able to tackle that challenge as well as his fellow actors, and it’s a problem that ultimately threatens to put off the tone of the movie. But luckily the script and other performances are strong enough to cover for that. Faxon and Rash have made a teen movie that itself feels like a teenager: not always sure of how to say what it wants to, but awfully sweet and funny.
Match Allison Janney: Drink for Drink.
Take a Drink: every time Trent is awful to Duncan.
Shotgun a Beer: during the final water slide scene.