Few nostalgia films allow this descriptor to play a role in the story. The Way, Way Back mirrors whatever happy, longing memories the viewer may bring with those of the characters, making for a remarkably accurate portrayal of just how easily rose-colored lenses may crack.
Oscar-winning writers and first-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who so deftly adapted the specific speech of certain groups in Hawaii for The Descendants, provide quick, witty dialog that captures each character from first word and further develops, deepens and alters them the more they speak. While some remain one-note jokes or archetypes, the leads are provided a depth and emotion so bereft in most films which trade on sun days and water parks. Embodying these emotions is a plethora of strong performances. Toni Collette’s spontaneous breakdowns, Liam Jones’s misplaced anger, Allison Janney’s enthusiastic compensation and, of course, Sam Rockwell’s Sam Rockwell, are staggeringly accurate to the experiences of divorcees, divorcee children and replacement fathers.
Of course, while funny throughout, the film can’t help but indulge in a few cloyingly feel-good moments. Some scenes, especially those at the water park, are so perfectly centered upon what protagonist Duncan needs but doesn’t want that they become inauthentic wish-fulfillment. While adding a few laughs and twee smiles, these scenes lose credibility and may turn off viewers who can’t believe every person would go out of their way to help one sullen boy’s self-esteem. Nonetheless, moments where the film strays into misguided sugary sweetness are made up for by all the places where it drives straight into the uncomfortable, bitter and awkward, creating an entire town in willing suspension, trying to shelter from reality with insulated worlds made only for them. Some of these worlds, like that of Rockwell’s water park manager, are wonderful to visit, but the film’s heart shows when the walls between realities crack and crumble. The result isn’t new, but it is refreshing.
The Way, Way Back is a nostalgia film that doesn’t trade-in emotional depth for shallow warm-fuzzies. Adolescence, flings, summer getaways are never as great as the ruby glasses color them. It’s when the glasses come off, and characters become people, that both authenticity and happiness come through.[subscribe2]