The Way, Way Back is charming and gentle. It goes down smooth. It’s written deftly and performed subtly. It’s funny, it’s moving.
It’s everything most of this summer’s movies aren’t.
This coming-of-age comedy takes as its subject a child who is truly awkward in the least meme-inspired sense of the word. Fourteen year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his mother Pam (Toni Collette) are spending the summer with Pam’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) in an out-of-the-way beach town complete with a cheesy water park and plenty of adolescent hijinks. Trent struggles to find a place in this unfamiliar world, rejecting his new father figure and his annoying friends (Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet and, most delightfully, Allison Janney) and stuttering out two-word sentences to the attractive girl next door (Anna Sophia-Robb). But when he stumbles upon Owen (Sam Rockwell), the kind jokester who “works” at the water park (a more accurate description of his services would be “pals around with the staff and riffs amusingly”), Duncan finds someone who isn’t fazed by his inability to interact naturally in basic social situation. If anything, Owen takes it upon himself to make Duncan feel comfortable, something the oblivious Trent would never think to do.
The basic elements at work in The Way, Way Back aren’t particularly exciting. We’ve seen the story of the kid who rejects his mother’s new boyfriend and the story of the socially inept kid who finds love and friendship despite his insecurities. While the script generally avoids caricature, even in minor characters like the perpetually retiring Lewis (Rash, also known as Dean Pelton on Community), Trent comes across as every stereotype of the intruding parent with little of the depth or decency that might have made his conflict with Trent more than a simple dichotomy of good vs. evil. (I wonder if Rash and Faxon cast the eminently likable Carell in an attempt to inject some humanity into the story’s villain, but Carell’s performance isn’t dynamic enough for those sorts of shadings.) As expected, Duncan develops a slight but sweet romantic interest in Susanna, though Rash and Faxon thankfully avoid placing too much story importance on this chaste courtship. The Way, Way Back offers few surprises from a narrative perspective.
What it does offer, though, is an appealing world filled with characters worth getting to know. At its best, The Way, Way Back is content to observe the water park and all of its slightly crass pleasures. When Owen tells Duncan an elaborate story about the water park’s founder, or when easygoing Roddy (Faxon) halts an attractive woman at the top of the water slide to ogle her for a few extra seconds, or when Caitlyn lovingly berates Owen for shirking his responsibilities, we get to luxuriate in a fully developed universe that feels bustling and alive. These scenes also nicely capture the rhythms of burgeoning adolescence: the way that adults seem to be talking just slightly faster than you’re able to comprehend, the thrill of the unknown beckoning even as you’re becoming more aware of what you’re supposed to be doing, the feeling of being a few minutes late to a party and missing the beginning of every conversation. The Way, Way Back accomplishes these observations by allowing its performers room to breathe; Rockwell in particular benefits from a loose demeanor and an apparent willingness to improvise (or at least appear spontaneous).
Despite the lazy characterization of Trent, the movie also offers some interesting depictions of relationships between parents and children. Duncan frequently rejects his mother not because he doesn’t love her, but because he sees what she can’t, or won’t. Trent says he wants “trust and respect,” but he doesn’t seem capable of taking his own advice. And then there’s Betty (Janney), who drinks and gossips incessantly and encourages her son to cover his lazy eye with an eyepatch so he won’t make people uncomfortable. But the movie takes care to acknowledge that Betty has noble intentions but lacks the skills to execute them; she wants the best for her children, even if she doesn’t know what the best is.
I really respect Liam James’ performance in this movie. He’s convincingly geeky, and not in a movie-like “big glasses and squeaky voice” way, but in a lifelike “has things to say but can’t get the words out” way. I was pleased that the movie doesn’t try to suggest that Duncan undergoes a life-changing transformation during his time at the beach house. He simply gets a sense of the larger world around him, learns a little bit about himself, and heads home with his mother, still far from jock material but no less winning. The other performances are also quite effective: Owen could have easily been a nuisance, but Rockwell balances his character’s effortless charm with his endless chatter and incorrigible laziness beautifully. Janney, Corddry, Collette, Rash and Faxon offer lovely support, and Robb breathes pleasant life into a character with few unexpected traits.
One of my favorite scenes in The Way, Way Back also demonstrates the movie’s biggest strengths. Owen and Roddy send Duncan to stop a rowdy crowd of teenagers from dancing and causing a ruckus in the middle of the park. When the diminutive Duncan puts on his best aggressive voice (which isn’t very aggressive), the dancers look at him for a moment, and instead of doing what movies have conditioned us to believe they would do (start beating him up), they ask him to dance for them. And when he does, limp and rhythm-free, they again buck our expectations and, instead of mocking him mercilessly, enjoy the performance, ironically at first and later not so much. Perhaps they see a little of Duncan in themselves. This scene, which goes on for several minutes and rarely hits the beats we expect, offers a little spin on a well-worn story about decent people living a “normal” life. In a summer of bigger, better, faster stronger, The Way, Way Back makes a refreshing case for the little guys.