THE WAY WAY BACK Review: There IS a Cure for the Summertime Blues
I’ve certainly experienced my share of historical events – those “Where were you when?” moments, like when MTV launched or when the Challenger exploded. I’ve also experienced all of those ultimate “firsts” that most people experience as kids and teens – first crush, first date, first kiss, first … well, you know how that escalates.
But I cannot say that there was a time in my life, be it a moment or a day or a season or a school year, when I entered that particular timeframe as one person and came out the other side changed somehow. Surely it happens to people in real life, for the theme has recurred in movies for decades. (The cynic in me retorts, “Yeah, so has the ‘unstoppable slasher’ theme, but the world isn’t crawling with a million Freddy Kruegers.”)
Perhaps it’s because, as an only child, I was treated like an adult. I was never the tag-along on either side of my family, nor in any of their social circles. I was smarter than most kids (and some adults, although not off the charts), and pretty quick-witted, too, so maybe because I didn’t behave like a child, I wasn’t treated like one, either. (Insert your own chicken-or-egg discussion here.) I was also heavily influenced by my grandparents, whose love and nurturing made me something of an old soul. Maybe I can attribute my lack of that coming-of-age scenario to that early maturity.
Regardless, whenever I watch a this type of film, I have very little to connect with, and this has never been a thing before. But something was different when I watched The Way Way Back: for the first time, a coming-of-age film made me feel like I missed something special by growing up quickly, bypassing the awkwardness of youth, and reveling in that breakthrough moment.
Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is miserable. He is stuck in the far back seat (thus the film’s title) of a vintage station wagon, facing where he has been, not where he is going, which is to an east coast beach resort for the summer. An entire summer at the beach might sound like fun, but the owner of the house (and the car, for that matter) is Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is the boyfriend of Duncan’s mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and has been for about a year. Trent is not very nice, nor is his teen daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), and Duncan – already awkward and shy – is facing the prospect of a summer stuck living with these people in a place he can’t even call home. It gets worse when they arrive.
Trent’s neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), is a whirlwind divorcee, loaded with cocktails and zingers, quite a few of the latter of which are directed at her own son (and his lazy eye), Peter (River Alexander). Also part of Trent’s summer crew are his friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). Before the car’s engine is cool, the adults are in 24-hour party mode, leaving Duncan as nothing more than an afterthought, even to his own mother. But all is not without hope.
Betty has a daughter, too – the pretty blonde Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) – who is more interested in Duncan’s genuineness than she is in Steph’s shallowness. She isn’t like the other kids around the resort town, something Duncan picks up on. Also coming into Duncan’s life is Owen (Sam Rockwell), owner of the town’s big attraction, the Water Wizz water park. A chance meeting a pizza parlor Pac-Man machine finds Duncan in friendly company with dynamic owner Owen, which ultimately leads to a job at the water park and a membership in that park’s fraternity of employees, who are more family than co-workers.
The Way Way Back is a wonderfully constructed story that revolves around Duncan, weaving tales of the angst, pain, and awkwardness of his relationships against the backdrop of a sunny, seaside resort town. Most of the relationships are standard fare: son and divorced mother (Duncan and Pam); son and boyfriend of divorced mother (Duncan and Trent); and young man and young woman finding common ground that is theirs and not their parents’ (Duncan and Susanna). Even the relationship between Duncan and Owen has been done before (more on that later). So when you have material that is well-traveled, solid writing and standout performances are critical to success, and this film crackles with both.
The screenplay, co-written by co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, hits its marks not just with precision timing, but with an instinctive sense of execution. It is laugh-out-loud funny when it needs to be, but it never overreaches or tries too hard for a punchline. Its moments of discomfort don’t overbear or linger too long. And it never gets treacly or panders to the viewer for tears. It’s all so very organic, and naturally unfolds and evolves.
As for performances, there are two groups of actors in this film: The Great and The Good. This is key, because normally there is a third group: The Rest. There really is no “The Rest” in this film. No speaking role is superfluous, and every actor with a line is at least a member of The Good.
Leading off The Great is the actor with the most advance buzz, Sam Rockwell. His performance is amazing, and given the summer bum bravado, I thought I would find a grown-up Spicoli (originated by Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as the Water Wizz owner. What I wound up getting was a (very) poor man’s Tony Stark (immortalized by Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man and The Avengers film franchises). Like Stark, Owen’s radiant self-confidence and inexhaustible charm are undermined by his lack of respect for the general way that responsibility works. He wants to be the life of the party all the time, but can’t be bothered by the details or the cleanup – a la Stark. This is the prefect thing to draw Duncan out of his shell, but Owen personally suffers from his own attitudes, namely in the form of his fractured relationship with employee/crush Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). Like Downey as Stark (out of the tin suit), Rockwell as Owen commands your attention in high times and low.
The next Great performer is Allison Janney. In fact, she could have easily stolen the whole film from Rockwell if Faxon and Rash had not been smart enough to limit her presence. I say “smart enough” because the movie isn’t about her. Janney clearly tapped into her experience as a star of the fast-paced, fast-spoken TV drama The West Wing. The directorial style of the film is different than that show, but the pace of her character is not. If she weren’t playing the lovable, middle-aged party mom, I’d say she was channeling Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday; her delivery is that sharp.
The third (and final) Great performance comes from Steve Carell. What a shocker. He plays Trent as mean, but not overtly so (okay, other than telling Duncan he’s a 3 out of 10). The meanness comes in how Carell manages to keep Trent on the edge of impatience with Duncan, bordering on full-blown annoyed. This is a man who is a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do figure who cares more about his car than his girlfriend’s child (hell, his own child for that matter), and Carell keeps him at a constant state of subdued anger.
As for James, he straddles The Good and The Great. He’s in most of the scenes so the film rests on his young shoulders, and he certainly rises to that occasion. There are times I found him almost too boring, and the big climax at the end of the second act felt forced. Plus, in the presence of Rockwell and Carell, it’s tough to stand out.
The rest of the cast – The Good – are an excellent collective of supporting players, led by Collette, Rash in a very funny small role, and a surprisingly solid Rudolph. I didn’t expect her to be bad, I just didn’t expect her to be as memorable as she is.
Comparisons have been made to this film and 1979’s Meatballs, and there are some similarities, but to me they are only superficial: Duncan and Meatballs‘ Rudy (Chris Makepeace) are awkward teens with self-esteem problems who are mentored by quirky cool-older-uncle types like Owen and Meatballs’ Tripper (Bill Murray). But where Meatballs is content to wade in the shallow end with more goofiness than pathos and an incredibly happy ending, The Way Way Back goes swimming in the water’s deeper parts, which are its best parts.