In a cluster of big-budget extravaganzas about superheroes, zombies, robots, monsters, and things that blow up, two little comedies about the magic of summer have stood out this season. One of these films is “The Kings of Summer,” perhaps the most overlooked picture of the year, thus far. The other film is “The Way, Way Back.” Both of these movies are humorous and identifiable with a familiar, yet eternally meaningful, message about growing up. “The Kings of Summer” and “The Way, Way Back” additionally seem to exist in timeless eras, mostly devoid of new-aged technology and modern references. There’s just one key difference between the two coming-of-age tales.
“The Kings of Summer” played out almost like a daydream. It was the kind of summer experience we all imagined having in our youth, but never really could. “The Way, Way Back,” on the other hand, feels so uncomfortably authentic that at times it’s difficult to watch. It’s a truly relatable film full of characters we’ve all likely encountered in real life. It’s also one of the best films of the year.
Liam James hits just the right note as Duncan, a socially awkward 14-year-old who always slouches and wears tight jeans to the beach. He lives with his single mother (Toni Collette) in a one-bedroom apartment. His mom is dating a man named Tent (Steve Carell), who tries to sell himself as a nice guy but is really an impatient jerk at heart. Along with his mom and Trent’s snarky teenage daughter (Zoe Levin), Duncan gets dragged to Trent’s summerhouse. Living next door is a very funny Allison Janney as a drunken divorcée, AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter, and River Alexander as her lazy-eyed son.
Although it looks like summer is going to be hell for Duncan, he manages to find two safe havens. One of them is at the Water Wizz water park, the same water park Adam Sandler and gang went to in “Grown Ups.” There he meets Sam Rockwell’s Owen, a hipster who takes Duncan under his wing to help bring him out of his shell. Duncan also manages to find comfort in AnnaSophia Robb’s Susanna. The two don’t share an instant chemistry. The first conversation they share is just flat out awkward. As the summer progresses, though, a relationship does inevitably evolve between them. It’s a sweat, subtle summer romance that feels surprisingly natural and never forced.
Just about everyone in the audience will find somebody to identity with watching this movie. Any kid who’s maintained a summer job probably had an older friend like Owen who can be both wise and immature at the same time. Many of us know all too well what it’s like to have a stepparent like the pushy Trent. Collette particularly stands out as the mother, who knows that Trent isn’t a good man and will never treat her right. Regardless, she stays with him anyways as an effort to fulfill her own needs and provide her son with a family. On more than one occasion, I felt like Duncan growing up, silently sitting alone in a room full of people, afraid to put myself out there, and unsure what direction to take my life in.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Descendants” along with Alexander Payne. Here they act as the writers, directors, and co-stars of “The Way, Way Back.” They’ve made a warm, honest film that’s next to impossible not to enjoy. Even at 103 minutes, it’s one of those rare movies that feel all too short. Like a great summer vacation, you just wish “The Way, Way Back” would last forever.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.