A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Way, Way Back is an empathetic, entertaining coming-of-age dramedy that rings true on many levels, capturing what it's like to be a 14-year-old boy surrounded by adults who should be doing a better job of acting their age. Some themes (i.e. infidelity) may be too much for tweens, but teens will appreciate the challenges the main character faces and how he decides to confront them. Expect scenes showing adults in various states of inebriation (mostly giggly and neglectful), seducing others who aren't their mates, and being cruel to teens, among others. A teen is shown sneaking a few beers into her purse; others talk about how one teen supplies adults with weed. Language includes one "f--k," plus "s--t" and "a--hole," and there's innuendo and stolen kisses between a couple who are involved with other people.
What's the story?
Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) isn't looking forward to a summer at the beach. Not when he'd rather be at his dad's house in California, and the beach house he'll be staying in is owned by his mother Pam's (Toni Collette) smug new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), who declares Duncan a 3 (out of 10) after asking him what he thinks he rates. (For the record, Duncan thinks he's a 6.) Duncan's pseudo-sister, Trent's daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), has zero interest hanging out with him, but her friend and next-door neighbor, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), isn't as harsh, extending Duncan a friendly welcome. (Duncan thinks she's cute, too.) Susanna's mother (Allison Janney), loves to drink and share her opinions loudly, in that order. And though they seem nice, Pam isn't so sure about Trent's friends, especially Joan (Amanda Peet), who seems bitter from the start. Good thing there's Owen (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Water Wizz waterpark and shows Duncan how freeing, how wonderful it is to be your best self.
Is it any good?
Coming-of-age dramedies rarely ring true anymore, suffocated as they are by so many cliches, but this film is an exception; it's a gem, authentic on so many levels. It captures the alienation and isolation that come with being a 14-year-old boy whose parents are divorced and whose mother is trying to figure out how to get on her feet again, making a go of a relationship with a man who isn't good enough for her. Few characters here are stereotypes; most of them are complicated in really interesting and very real ways. Take Collette's Pam, who cares about her son but is distracted by a boyfriend who sort of is Mr. Right; how to juggle that? And yet she's not villainized. Even Carell, who's playing against type here as Trent, manages to make him seem like a real person, even if he's a jerk. Rockwell's Owen is dangerously close to caricature, but he never crosses the line. He isn't portrayed as the perfect polar opposite of Trent, just a better alternative. And then there's James' Duncan, who isn't a loser, even if others think he is. He knows this, and he's all the more fascinating because of it.
The film distills summer's languorous, seductively lazy, but frustratingly indolent ways, how it's suffused with so much expectation and offers both joy and disappointment. The movie initially lags and is sometimes tripped up by a certain aimlessness, but perhaps that's how summer is, too? It feels too much all at once, but sweet once you let it unfold as it will. You're advised to enjoy The Way, Way Back in the same way.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what makes The Way, Way Back a coming-of-age story. What elements define that subgenre to you? What are your favorites, both on screen and in book form?
Talk to your kids about the challenges of being the child of divorced parents. How does this film portray the adults? Are they responsible parents? What other challenges does Duncan face due to his parents' split?
How does the film depict drinking? Are there realistic consequences?
Why do you think Duncan feels so distant from his mother? Are his reactions realistic? Understandable? Why does he feel so alone?
- In theaters: July 5, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: October 22, 2013
- Cast: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette
- Directors: Jim Rash, Nat Faxon
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Friendship
- Run time: 103 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.