Solid script and exceptional performances elevate ‘The Way Way Back’
There is a sweet thread of grace being pulled through the creative tapestry of The Way Way Back. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the duo that nabbed an Oscar for their Descendants screenplay, the film slides into the busy, testosterone-infused summer movie season with not only a good story to tell, but with a terrific reminder to audiences that there are good stories to tell about boys and men that have nothing to do with killing somebody and blowing things up.
Cheers to that, because The Way Way Back is one of the most refreshing films of the summer. (Although, be on the lookout for The Spectacular Now, which hits theaters next month.)
This wonderfully executed coming-of-age tale would not shine as well as it does were it not for young Liam James, who infuses the film’s protagonist, 14-year-old Duncan, with equal parts of social awkwardness and quirky appeal. Duncan begrudgingly goes along on a summer beach vacation with his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and from the get-go, he senses trouble. For starters, Trent calls Duncan a three (on a scale of 10) and always calls him “buddy” in an misplaced effort to effectively bond with him. It’s easy to see that Trent, who has an older teenage daughter of his own, and his own share of failed relationships, isn’t all that happy with the course that his own life has taken. Perhaps this new opportunity with Pam will lead to something deeper. Or so he thinks.
But Pam isn’t all that jazzed about her life either—not really. And neither are the majority of the adults in The Way Way Back, many of which regress into rebellious behaviors once they smell the beach air—it’s as if they’re clinging to a hope that they can defrost their inner teen; the one that wound up making all the wrong decisions. Of their reckless abandon, one young character quips: “This place is like spring break for adults.”
Filmmakers Faxon and Rash spoonfeed us plenty of these adult “children,” the most colorful of which is a single mother of two named Betty. Played by Allison Janney, Betty is almost cartoonish in her quips, diatribes and her mad rush to pour herself and the adults around her another drink. Janney happens to be fed the best lines, too, but, pro that she is, she doesn’t always resort to overtly licking her fingers dry of them as they go down. Were this a television series, I’d be warning the writers to tone it down and reel Betty in, but the point is made: The adults are tired—nobody really told them that “time” can been a bitch, and now they’ve lost a grip on managing their own lives effectively. Bummer for the kids.
Feeling belittled and left out—and often infuriated by Trent’s passive aggressiveness—Duncan resorts to his own methods. His shyness prevents him from fully connecting (yet) with Betty’s teenage daughter so, with several synchronistic winds aiding his sails, he winds up secretly taking a part-time job at an aging water park dubbed Water Wizz. Like the adults in the film, the park needs some inner work, but alas, it’s the playful paradise to which everybody still flocks. It’s here that Duncan meets the park’s manager Owen—played to winning ends by Sam Rockwell—and it is their budding friendship—Owen as mentor/father figure—that generates the most heart.
Will Duncan ever gain the confidence he needs? Will Owen ever realize that he, too, must grow up and be more responsible?
It’s a touching conundrum and while the film has somewhat of a predictable pace, it does surprise you by how wonderfully underplayed it actually is. (Thank you Steve Carell.) No doubt we’re rooting for Duncan, but the film never resorts to gimmick. Instead, we’re given a set of characters that manage to evoke enough emotion out of us that we genuinely care about what happens to them.
Beyond that, it boasts some of the best supporting cast you’ll see on screen this year: Maya Rudolph (as Owen’s coworker/love interest), Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry and AnnaSophia Robb (Betty’s daughter) among them.
As for the film’s title, it may refer to that rear-facing third seat of Trent’s retooled old station wagon where we first encounter Duncan. But there’s also the sense that it alludes to a kind of moody yearning—that pang to be understood or fully realized as one had been in the past. Or hopes to be sometime in the future.
Either way, the filmmakers deliver a glowing effort in their directorial debuts. This is one film to savor.
THE WAY WAY BACK
★ ★ ★1/2 (our of four)
With Steve Carell, Toni Collette,
Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney,
Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet,
Rob Corddry, Liam James and
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.