Duncan (Liam James) is a 14-year-old kid from Albany, New York. He’s awkward, shy, and just generally the living embodiment of all the horrible things about being 14 (minus the acne). His mom (Toni Collette) has forced him to go out east with her, her boyfriend (Steve Carell), and her boyfriend’s 16-year-old daughter (Zoe Levin) to a beach house for the summer. The boyfriend is very strict on him, ostensibly in an effort to toughen him up, and the potential future sister-in-law would be okay with him never existing. So, he spends his days during the summer aimlessly wandering the town, which leads him to meeting Owen (Sam Rockwell), the boisterous manager of the local water park. Life suddenly gets a lot better, and that cute girl across the street (AnnaSophia Robb) a lot easier to talk to. The cast also features Allison Janney, Amanda Peete, Rob Corddry, and Maya Rudolph. The guys who co-wrote last year’s The Descendents (Jim Rash, Nat Faxon) wrote and directed it, and the people responsible for Little Miss Sunshine produced it.
There is something intentionally out of step with the present about the appropriately named The Way, Way Back. The car which transports Duncan and family to the summer home in the opening minutes resembles the hideously-colored 4-door station wagon used by the Griswold’s in National Lampoon’s Vacation. The actual summer home show’s no immediate signs of modernity: no flat-screen TV, energy-efficient windows, or trendy decorative touches. Instead, it looks lived in, with muted white walls and dark brown cabinets and a stack of board games ready for family fun, including Candy Land. Plus, when Duncan wishes to sulk as befits every good teenager he listens to music through earphones, but his choice of music? R.E.O Speedwagon. Not to knock R.E.O. Speedwagon or to say that kids in film should only listen to era-appropriate music, but this is of a body of evidence which leads one to suspect the film is set in the 1980s (they never ever outright state the year at any point).
Then, suddenly, around 30 minutes in while giving Duncan his first tour of the water park Owen references Google as well as jokes about the Cold War in the definite past-tense. But, wait, how could it be set in the present? No one seems to have cellphones, nobody every watches TV or even acknowledges the existence of the internet, and the only pop culture referenced is one R.E.O. Speedwagon joke and two or three Star Wars jokes (though only about the original 1977-1983 trilogy). However, rather than stating a specific year or giving a cultural touchstone in the background (e.g., the classic “poster of popular band from that era” on the teenager’s wall) directors/screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon instead appear focused on the timeless tale of a young teenager who starts out awkward and ends a fair bit less awkward.
So, do they pull it off? Probably as well as you could reasonably expect two first-time directors to. It’s tale – basic coming-of-age story about a young, American teenage boy – is a bit too familiar, but the telling of it manages to remain distinct by not going as far as others have with similar set-ups. This is a film in which a boy and girl watching fireworks together on the 4th of July is not a prelude to a big first kiss, but instead two kids enjoying much-needed bonding over their shared pains as respective children of divorced parents.
Things do not start off particularly well, though. The film opens in the station wagon as while the women sleep Carrell has an unintentionally mean one-on-one with Duncan in which he confirms how weird Duncan believes himself to be.
Upon arriving moments later at the summer home, the family is greeted by a neighbor who is a longtime family friend to Carrell’s character. This neighbor is played with gusto by Allison Janney, but she is an incredibly broad portrait of a drunk divorcee who has no social filter due to her long-standing appointment with the drink. Everyone else is playing the emotion of the scenes on one level, a level where a held glance or a sigh speaks a thousand words, and Janney is ripping jokes about her lazy-eyed son and newly gay ex-husband. That being said, she is pretty funny, but she seems to be acting in a broad comedy while everyone else is playing the more tine-tuned indie drama with some comedic moments.
In fact, for a film being marketed more for its comedic material it might be jarring to some to find how long it takes the film to get to the funny parts. Even when comedic actors like Amanda Peete and Rob Corddry show up as old friends of Carrell’s things remain mostly low-key, as their presence kickstarts a story arc in which all of the adults gradually begin acting like teenagers due to the influence of way too much alcohol and marijuana. However, rather than play this for the “old people acting young” broad comedy potential it instead depicts it from Duncan’s point of view, who views it all with disgust and cause to seek asylum elsewhere on the island.
That’s when Sam Rockwell’s Owen enters. Similar to Janney, he initially seems out of step with the rest of the movie, as he is a joke-delivery machine in the classic Bill Murray from Meatballs vein. However, Rockwell manages to pull it off, lording over the teenagers at the park due to his wit and general aura of coolness while comically bantering with other water park employees played by Maya Rudolph as well as the director/writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Although he would view himself as, at best, the cool older brother, Owen becomes the much-needed supportive father figure Duncan desperately needs. The water park stuff is supposedly based upon the experiences from Faxon and Rash’s respective childhoods, and their depiction of the lines and slides is certainly authentic. The depictions of the actual water park employees probably comes off like a collection of sitcom characters, but that’s mostly because Rockwell and Rudolph are the only two to get any real development.
There is a definite tonal difference which emerges between the funny and enjoyable sequences at the water park and the increasingly grim stuff at home. This works well for a film whose central character is in more and more need of escaping into the pure, unadulterated fun of a water park. Plus, this divide pays off later when Duncan opens up to Owen in a touching dramatic scene, featuring no music (orchestral or song) on the soundtrack leaving only the performances to carry the weight of the emotions.
The Way, Way Back struggles with its ending. After a summer of incremental but believably realistic growth everything is capped off with one big moment which feel like Faxon and Rash wanted to give the audience a crowd-pleasing emotional catharsis but weren’t totally sure how to pull it off. So, they revert to cliche. However, even then it does not quite go for broke as it could. For example, they could have pulled a Perks of Being a Wallflower and used the last act to introduce deeply suppressed emotional trauma as the root of awkwardness. That’s not their approach to the material. Instead, it’s a more grounded, “Man, being 14 sure as heck sucked.” By the end, there is the sense that while things do indeed get better they also can’t realistically be entirely solved in one summer.
Rockwell would almost steal the film with his performance were it not for the presence of Liam James as Duncan, who, at 16 (probably 15 when this was filmed), portrays teenage awkwardness with preternatural ease. Every stuttered sentence or shrug of his shoulders or lowering of his head to avoid eye contact is pitch-perfect, and his growth over the course of the story believable but never played too big. The rest of the cast deliver good performances, with Carrell possibly disappointing that his character yields not a single laugh. However, for the first time in his career he’s playing a straight dramatic role, and he does it well, not coming off nearly as much as the one-note a-hole the character could have been. Just don’t go in expecting to like him. Collette is asked to tread similar territory as her beleaguered mom character in Little Miss Sunshine, but she gets a little more to do and pulls it off well.
The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age story which bizarrely tantalizes by not quite going as far with its story as you’d expect. As a result, you might walk away from it surprised at how little actually happens. It’s probably not quite as funny as you might expect, either. However, it is a rather effective small film anchored by strong performances from Sam Rockwell and Liam James, and the surprisingly assured directing from first-timers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash even if they somewhat fumble the ending a bit. It actually might make you feel nostalgic for days of summers past spent at water parks.
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