Top 10 films of 2013: The Way, Way Back

Feature Duncan Bowles
23 Dec 2013 - 06:59

This charming coming of age story made our top 10 list of the year thanks to wonderful performances from Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell

Over the past few weeks, Den of Geek writers have been voting for their favourite films of the year. And we're thrilled that democracy allowed this one to break the top ten. In at number 7, it's The Way, Way Back...

7. The Way, Way Back

Coming of age movies are nothing new, especially those involving life changing moments in time (usually the summer vacation), but they’ve always proved to be an incredibly rich source of nostalgic beauty and great cinema. The first to spring to mind are Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, which all presented tangibly raw emotions as endured by the main protagonists, while the likes of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, Greg Mottola’s Superbad and of course the infamous Porky’s and American Pie focused on the more raucous side of youth, in the best way.

When the genre is handled by talented directors the results can often prove to be highpoints in a career, particularly when personal experience comes into play – even the most ardent Star Wars fan would likely agree that George Lucas’ finest character work comes from American Graffiti. Yet when a film such as The Way, Way Back comes along, it manages to feel utterly fresh and exciting, as it’s handled with such delicate aplomb that you’ll be hard pressed to escape the residual emotional imprint it leaves.

The tale is a simple one, as a boy and his mother embark on a summer vacation with her immediately dislikeable boyfriend and his daughter, but within minutes of the opening scene’s dialogue, the awkward, tense and blackly comic tone immediately throws off any sense of convention.

It was a masterstroke to let Steve Carell start proceedings by playing utterly against type, as it plays well to audience assumption that an actor known for playing such simple and loveable foils would play exactly that. Yet in The Way, Way Back he’s a magnificent bastard. Carell’s Trent is the worst kind of new man on the scene, pretending at face value to want to befriend his girlfriends’ son, Duncan (Liam James), while simultaneously destroying his self-esteem. The dynamic between Trent and Duncan is so sharply observed that you can’t help but be affected by how things play out. But, as with all areas of the film, the relationships never fall into cliché or take the easy path, making the audience really work for any kind of resolution, resulting in a near exhausting emotional rollercoaster at times.

If the picture being painted so far implies the film is all doom and gloom, that’s certainly not the case. There’s also plenty of time devoted to the lighter side of Duncan’s vacation, as he unexpectedly finds himself working a summer job at a water park after a chance encounter with Sam Rockwell’s effervescent man-boy, Owen.

Stating a love for Sam Rockwell’s work at Den of Geek is fairly redundant as there’s barely a week that passes when one of his many great performances isn’t celebrated (most recently Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind placed highly in the most underappreciated movies of 2002) and The Way, Way Back adds another pitch perfect role to his roster.

The beauty of Rockwell’s character comes from Duncan’s hero worship of him that so many of us have felt at one time or another for someone just because they’re older. And Owen is the absolute embodiment of cool as seen through younger eyes. As the film progresses though, we become aware of Owen’s own dysfunctional issues, resulting in a constant concern that he, too, will betray his surrogate father figure responsibility to Duncan, but it’s down to Rockwell’s sheer charisma and Liam James’ portrayal of distraught innocence that their relationship remains the compelling heart of the movie. It also speaks volumes that even as an adult, you’ll still wish that you could undergo a summer’s mentorship by Owen.

Having mentioned only three superb performances so far, doesn’t mean that every player in The Way, Way Back isn’t uniformly excellent, but there are so many fine actors enlisted to help flesh out even the smaller roles, that bringing attention to them all would result in thousands of words. Plus there’s always a delight to be had in watching a film without being aware of the full cast, so an actors’ appearance can be a pleasant surprise.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (better known to most readers as Community’s Dean Pelton) here share duel writing and director credits, on their feature debut as helmers, while putting in some fine comedic performances in the film itself. They never miss a beat on any of their duties. Their feat to make such a tight, compelling film is made all the more impressive when you discover the limitations they had while filming it (read our interview with the dynamic duo here).

With the direction, script and performances are all first class, it’s reassuring that so much positive word of mouth has elevated the attention given to The Way, Way Back. And that it’s made the Den of Geek top ten in a year flooded with quality films, especially big blockbusters, is a real testament to its strength as a film. There’s so much more to discover than briefly mentioned here, but trust us that the beautifully realised characters alone make this a must see.

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