As we experience the summer movie season — and the big films that fill the theaters — the Reel Dad checks out the nutritional value of smaller films that offer compelling points of view. This week’s pick is The Way Way Back, currently available at local cinemas.

All he wants is someone to notice him, believe in him, celebrate his life. At age 14, with his parents recently divorced, Duncan finds himself in an unpredictable world defined by people who make choices that impact him, from the father who doesn’t want to see him, to the mother with questionable relationship skills, to her boyfriend with a superior edge. All Duncan wants is one friend who will, unconditionally, welcome him to each new day.

The Way Way Back uses the story of Duncan’s summer at the shore to frame a journey we all experience at some point, that magical experience of looking in the mirror and recognizing who we see, realizing that we bring value to others, and accepting that it’s okay to trust others. Without letting the drama get too sudsy, or the situations become too exaggerated, writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rush create an authentic slice of life that finds its story, stays within its plot, and focuses on its characters. The result is a rewarding opportunity for parents and teenagers to escape the heat and share a meaningful film.

As the film begins, the shy Duncan sits in the third seat of the vintage station wagon, watching the world go by as the car travels to the shore and the camera studies Steve Carell’s eyes in the rear view mirror. This man, so shallow, so insincere, uses his power over the young man’s mother to undermine the teenager’s self-confidence. And he loves every moment. So the boy arrives in an unfamiliar beach town, surrounded by a wild collection of free-thinking adults, and anxious to authentically connect with someone.

We know from the opening frame what may happen here. We can tell the boyfriend is no good, the mother is gullible, the teenager is vulnerable, the next-door neighbor is ready to party, and that his new friend needs a stable voice. The familiarity of the set-up helps us easily get inside the characters. The comfortable surroundings of The Way Way Back remind us that, no matter how old we may be, we are only as mature as our ability to overlook the weaknesses in those we love. How this young man learns to look beyond his disappointments reveals the importance of reserving special moments for ourselves. Sometimes, to be alone, is the best way to celebrate everyone we connect with.

Liam James beautifully captures the magic of being 14 while Toni Collette conveys the sincerity of confused motherhood. Carell continues to expand his screen persona and Sam Rockwell returns as his patented humorous self. The performance of the film, and one of the most enjoyable this year, comes from Allison Janney as a free-thinking woman on the beach. Whether dispensing useless advice to her children, or trying to convince others to party, Janney helps us see, as time passes, how unnecessary it should be to impress others.

With its rich characters and appealing setting, The Way Way Back doesn’t need a lot of unique plot twists to keep our interest. There’s something marvelous about how Faxon and Rash simply lets the camera observe as though we take a walk along the beach and simply eavesdrop on people we know. The film is that much fun.


 Film Nutritional Value

The Way Way Back

* Content: High. Any time we enjoy with such unique characters — well played by an engaging cast — is well spent.

* Entertainment: High. Writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rush are savvy enough never to let what they wants to say get in the way of how they want to say it.

* Message: High. As fun as the film is, the serious message — of young people wanting to be heard — is important for parents and teenagers to absorb.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk as a family about the experience of sharing lives and navigating change is worthwhile.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your teenagers can share the importance of staying connected as families face change.


(The Way Way Back is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.” The film runs 103 minutes.)


4 Popcorn Buckets