We all have that one summer that we smile about, cringe over, and wish we could re-experience -- even if only for an afternoon. Usually, it’s a summer between our 12th and 16th birthdays; when we no longer feel we’re children, but the adult world isn’t a comfortable fit either. A desperately awkward period when we are searching for our adult “voice” while enduring the fear that, in our sink or swim futures, confidence might fail us and we drown in self-doubt. In The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash -- the same writing team that collaborated on 2011’s The Descendants -- take us into the world of 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his awkward, break-through summer.
Faxon & Rash’s film, which they both co-wrote and co-directed, centers on Duncan’s month at the beach house of his divorced mother (Toni Collette)’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Uncomfortable with his mother’s romance with the passive-aggressive control freak, Trent, Duncan escapes into a secret part-time job at the local water park, Water Wizz. There he finds a clown prince mentor in Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen goes through pains trying to teach the poor kid how to laugh and enjoy himself, while also showing him the ropes of the water slide business -- like how bikini-clad girls will patiently “hold” at the top of a slide, never suspecting the park employees just eyeing their glistening, perfect butts. Through Owen’s dealings with Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), the park’s resident “Wendy” to its team of Peter Pans, he also teaches Duncan about proper, grown-up relationships.
Newcomer AnnaSophia Robb plays Susanna, Duncan’s one peer-aged friend and long-suffering daughter of boozy neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). Miss Robb portrays Susanna perfectly, with just the right mixture of amiability and teen-aged aloofness. Together, Duncan and Susanna share the oft-forgotten emotional damage that divorce can inflict on children. The two are, for all intents and purposes, their parents’ old baggage, both literally and figuratively, a truth of which they are acutely aware. Also, they seem to share the understanding that they both know what’s going on in the adult world, but are still too young to do anything about it.
Duncan eventually finds his adult voice, ending the beach house vacation with the beginning of a confident new life -- and, hopefully, a brighter future for him and his mother.
Faxon and Rash’s script for The Way, Way Back is funny in its presentation of life’s awkward moments and heartbreakingly realistic in depicting the troubled ones. Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss this film as run-of-the-mill, coming-of-age summer fare, but for the strong characters and performances that elevated the otherwise banal story. Liam James plays Duncan as a kid whose life is completely shattered by his parent’s divorce, with such a drab moodiness that even I was irritated by him until he hooked up with Owen. Sam Rockwell’s Owen is a character of such rapid-fire comedy and wisecracks that, 30 years ago, this role would have gone to Bill Murray. As it turns out, Rockwell brought a slacker charm to Owen that made him fun and eminently likeable. Allison Janney appears as the obligatory wacky neighbor, the alcoholic divorcee and fretful mother, Betty. Janney turns in a performance of great humor and motherly love for Betty that is also unflinching in its rendering of a pathetic middle-aged woman trying to hold onto youth for just one more summer. Steve Carell is cast out of type as Trent, and it was good to see him stretching his acting repertoire. While it might not be a far reach to envision Carell as the type of guy who rigidly quotes the rules of the game Candyland, seeing him do so with Trent’s seething, serious tone was impressive and disturbing. Faxon and Rash appear in their film as Owen’s two employees, Roddy and Lewis. These seemingly hackneyed characters are made human by very good writing and well-crafted performances.
I’m not completely sure who the target audience is for The Way, Way Back. The 80’s music and references made the grown-ups’ “spring break for adults” part of the story nostalgic for me, but the film’s central character was a 14-year-old boy, so I felt lost as to where my attentions should go. Teen-aged viewers might be put off by some of the intense themes of this film, and find the humor lacking for their adolescent tastes.
I liked The Way, Way Back a lot. If you come across it, definitely don’t pass it by. Strong writing and wonderful performances make this otherwise cookie-cutter, Year-My-Voice-Broke-at-The-Summer-Place film something special, but unique in its own style. Sort of like how we came out of that one summer way, way back, ourselves, we may not be as special as we’d like, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t worth knowing and appreciating.