MOVIE REVIEW: The Way Way Back




Just over a month ago on this website, in my review of the indie entry The Kings of Summer, the anecdotal discussion surrounded the seemingly magical blend that comes when the season of summer combines with a the best of "coming-of-age" stories we've seen on film.  Each great coming-of-age moves goes about that summer-and-maturation relationship differently.  Some cover first loves and summer romance.  Other films push rebellion and defiance, while others take on acceptance, empowerment, or popularity.  The good films that do any of those well become watershed movies for each generation that they represent, whether it's Stand by MeThe Dead Poets SocietyThe Graduate, The Goonies, or Rebel Without a Cause.  Here's a re-post of one list of the best 50 on the subject.  You'll see a comprehensive list of fantastic films.  That list will soon grow by one.

That coming-of-age talk for The Kings of Summer evolved from the freedom of three teen boys who took it upon themselves to make their own lives in the wild away from parental control and the social jealousy that eventually surfaced among friends.  Before I watched that small independent movie, a trailer was shown for Fox Searchlight's The Way Way Back, the feature directorial debut of Academy Award-winning writers of The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  While The Kings of Summer did a fair and original job working in the coming-of-age realm, it came up well short of greatness.  I predicted then that The Way Way Back would be even better than that film.  My instincts were right. The Way Way Back, as of this late July date, is the best movie I've seen this summer and that's saying something.  

Yes, a little movie like The Way Way Back cannot compete on an excitement level with Star Trek Into Darkness or wow to an epic scale like Man of Steeltwo five-star reviews of mine from earlier this season.  It's a small and simple film with a budget under $5 million versus a pair of $200 million-plus behemoths.  Why it achieves that "best" praise is simple: HEART.  Every so often, a little movie you didn't see coming hits you square in the chest.  This is especially so with the memorable coming-of-age films we grow to cherish.  Every so often, a movie comes along and not only surprises you for its quality, but completely satisfies the emotional investment and trust you put into it.  Last year, The Perks of Being of a Wallflower and Moonrise Kingdom did that for me.  This year, it's The Way Way Back.

The teen protagonist for Faxon and Rash is 14-year-old Duncan (Canadian actor Liam James, whom you likely haven't seen since the disaster flick 2012).  He is part of a divorced household where his mother Pam (Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Toni Collette) has him for the summer.  She's been turning the corner and seeing someone new, the arrogant and pushy Trent (the top-billed Steve Carell).  Trent and Duncan have yet to bond and Duncan wishes he could stay with his unseen father in San Diego.  Instead, he's packed in a car with Trent, Pam, and Trent's bitchy teenage daughter Steph (newcomer Zoe Levin) for a summer vacation at Trent's beach house in Wareham, Massachusetts, a vibrantly-weathered coastal community south of Plymouth on Buzzards Bay on the southwest end of the horn of Cape Cod.

You notice right away that Duncan is in that awkward stretch of his early teenage years.  You can tell Pam's divorce isn't sitting well with him and it reverberates into the different aspects of his personality and confidence.  Duncan is introverted, withdrawn, unappreciated, and not mature enough to attract much attention from the ladies.  Trent, for one, doesn't let him forget it.  When that overbearing pressure merges with being the tag-along child in a summer of adult playtime between Trent, Pam, and Trent's over-privileged and perpetually-frolicking friends, including the outspoken divorcee neighbor Betty (The West Wing's Allison Janney, who's a hoot in this) and the married couple of Kip and Joan (Warm Bodies's Rob Corddry and Liam James's 2012 mom Amanda Peet).  It all becomes a mix that Duncan can't stand being around.

Two big glimmers of hope emerge for Duncan.  One is Betty's daughter Susanna (Soul Surfer star AnnaSophia Robb).  She's supposed to be a hoity-toity friend of Steph, but, as a fellow kid of divorce who would rather be with dad instead of mom, Susanna gravitates to hanging around Duncan.  The second is the whirlwind of self-discovery and fun offered to him by the gregarious Owen (a perfect Sam Rockwell), a co-manager of Water Wizz, the local Wareham waterpark (regrettably last seen on-screen in Grown Ups).  Seeing a kid who could use a break, Owen takes the sad-sack Duncan under his wing and gets him job at the waterpark, alongside a cast of Owen's fellow fun-seekers and delinquents (including Maya Rudolph and the directors, Faxon and Nash, themselves).  Slowly but surely, that free-wheeling environment boosts Duncan's confidence and gives him a place, for once, that he feels like he belongs.

In this superb ensemble, no performance goes unnoticed, but three stand out.  Liam James is a fine young actor who beautifully shines when his sulk gets reversed into a smile.  The more familiar adults get their names ahead of him in the credits, but this is his show.  Faxon and Nash showed a great deal of trust to put this movie on Liam's unproven shoulders and they were not let down.  You feel for the kid and that was the goal.  I think that effect is lessened if you put some recognizable teen magazine boy-hottie face (like a young Zac Efron at his High School Musical peak in 2006) in his place.

The second noteworthy performance came from Steve Carell.  For once, he actually has to play a bit of the bad guy, the ever-present dick, when so often he's the most lovable guy this side of Tom Hanks or Paul Rudd.  Much like I discussed in last summer's Hope Springs and a year earlier with Crazy Stupid Love, Carell is really starting to show remarkable range and restraint when he wants to.  This is a different part for him and he shows the same calculated and focused patience I complemented him on from Hope Springs.  

He waits for his opening and doesn't wig out like we expect him to with his usual over-the-top characters  and dominating over scenes.  Steve is getting really good at this after years of "that's what she said"-level buffoonery.  Mark my words, one of these days, he's going to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor.  It won't be for The Way Way Back, but, someday, he's going to hit the right chord in the right role and it's going to be brilliant and unexpected.

Finally, the stick that stirs the drink in The Way Way Back is the loquacious energy of Sam Rockwell.  We've all seen him play his usual fast-talking quipster in both big movies (Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens) and small ones (Choke, Seven Psychopaths).  Here that manic juice is harnessed as an outstanding positive influence.  This role could have been been cheapened into vulgarity by a Will Ferrell-type for the sake of contrast to Duncan's character, but Rockwell gives Owen some layers of his own to peel back and it's fascinating to watch.  The chief influence is clearly Bill Murray from Meatballs, but he's better than that.  Two years ago, I wrote an editorial on the ten best movie father-figures.  Rockwell might have just bumped somebody off of that list.  He's that good and that likable.

Like any great coming-of-age movie like The Way Way Back, the real treat for the audience is getting to follow the growth of our main character(s) while relating it to the magical time and growth we had ourselves when we were that age.  I have found that that effect only grows with age as a guy approaching his mid-30's.  Youthful exuberance and life's milestones during that time are hard to forget.  When we watch these movies, there's a good chance we can all pinpoint one great summer, one great trip, or even one great week, where we broke through our own personal glass ceilings.  While every one of these movies is different in setting, purpose, and goal, there's always one wrinkle or two that hits us all.  For me, The Way Way Back hit a ton of them.  The true credit for all of this goes to the writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  They learned well working with Alexander Payne on The Descendants, favoring a less-is-more approach.  We aren't privy to all the pushed-upon back stories that would clog other movies.  We don't need Owen's entire history.  We don't need every detail of Pam's divorce.  We don't need to hear Duncan's every thought.  The duo lets the performances do their work and challenges us to flesh out those details on our own.

Too many coming-of-age movies employ the "woe, is me" technique with their leads.  They overuse the cloying narrator voiceover that treats the audience like they wouldn't get the kid or the scene without his internal monologue for all to hear, spelling everything out from picky personal history to the finishing "where are they now" epilogue riding off into the sunset before the credits.  It works in some great coming-of-age movies, but it's unnecessary and a welcome departure in tone for The Way Way Back.

With a sunny disposition going for it, even the darkest brushstrokes of necessary drama never muddle this film's optimism blossoming from its initially pessimistic source in Duncan.  It's hard not to walk away from this movie without a smile across your face.  The Way Way Bank isn't going for American Pie-style raunch to prove its comedy.  It would rather charm you with heart.  That's what makes it great.  I rank it right there with The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Moonrise Kingdom from last year as new classics to the coming-of-age genre.  You'll be seeing The Way Way Back on my year-end Top 10 come January.

LESSON #1: THE REPERCUSSIONS FOR KIDS FOLLOWING MESSY DIVORCES-- Some will try to frame divorce as a selfish decision between a splitting couple.  Opponents of divorce will argue to the wayward pair to "think about the kids" when, quite likely, that's the first thing on that parent's mind before themselves in the situation.  When kids, regardless of age, are part of a divorcing family, there's no aftermath that is entirely positive.  There's going to be some damage.  Duncan and Susanna are two examples of teens dealing with the repercussions of divorce.  Duncan is confused and facing a father-figure that belittles more than compliments.  Susanna takes the reminiscent route and seeks to buck her social status.

LESSON #2: FATHER-FIGURES TAKE MANY FORMS AND COME FROM UNEXPECTED PLACES-- As I complimented before, Owen is the character that cleans up the gloomy landscape for Duncan.  All it took was someone lighthearted and benevolent enough to give Duncan a chance to fit in and listened to what the kid had to say.  The respect and admiration grew from there.  For this movie, that father-figure came in the form of a walking comedian slacker at a waterpark.  So be it.  In a country wrought with single-parent families and dead-beat dads, more boys could use people like Owen in their lives.  Sometimes that person is a coach or a school teacher.  Whoever they are, they might be the difference for a kid.

LESSON #3: WE ALL HAVE THAT ONE SUMMER WE REMEMBER FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES-- Just as I hinted at in the introduction and later in the review, all of us, hopefully, have that one summer with that one week or trip or vacation or job that changed our youth and pushed us towards greater maturity.  Close your eyes and think back and you'll find it.  If not, there are movies like The Way Way Back that give your memory a spark.

LESSON #4: THE JOURNEY TO FIND A PLACE WHERE YOU ARE HAPPY-- For Duncan's world when we meet him, no place is good for him at the moment.  Home was where divorce hit him and when a summer away to someplace beautiful should be just what the doctor ordered, it becomes a suffocating daily humiliation for Duncan, thanks to the tenuous relationship with Trent and the misbehaving adults that are having more fun than the kids.  When Duncan finds Water Wizz (or when Water Wizz finds Duncan, if that's your perspective), he discovers the first place in a long time that treats him like a person.  The welcoming environment there does wonders for his confidence and his interpersonal inadequacies.  He found a place he was genuinely happy and removed from all the people and places that made him unhappy.  We should all be so lucky to have such a place.  Hopefully, it's home.  It would be even better if it was work.  No matter where you are in life, you need one place where you are completely and unconditionally happy.