The coming of age movie is one of summer’s staples, think Adventureland as a classic example, a film where a kid suffering the awkwardness of adolescence has a life-changing experience over that one special summer. Most of them are fine examples of Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap). Then there’s The Way, Way Back. The Way, Way Back is one of the great ones.
Duncan (Liam James, Psych, The Killing) is the fourteen-year old boy at the heart of The Way, Way Back. He’s quiet, sullen, and generally unhappy. Part of that is because he’s being forced to spend the summer at a beach house owned by his mother, Pam’s (Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine) malicious jackass of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, Crazy Stupid Love, Despicable Me), and his mean girl daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). His beach house is called The Riptide, for cryin’ out loud!
Their neighbors are the boozily hilarious, overcompensating Betty (Allison Janney, The West Wing, Mr. Sunshine) and her children – sullen Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, The Carrie Diaries) and Peter (River Alexander), whose lazy eye can be disconcerting. Susanna would rather read, but Steph considers her part of her circle and she goes along, for a while.
Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry, Childrens Hospital) and Joan (Amanda Peet, Bent, The Good Wife) are a couple who seem to share a case of Peter Pan Syndrome leading to behavior that Betty describes to Duncan as ‘spring break for adults). Trent has a fixation on Joan (just to consolidate him as the worst prospective stepdad ever, following calling Duncan a three on the drive to the beach).
As we get to know these characters, we see Duncan becoming more and more frustrated and solitary until a chance encounter with a guy at a Pac Man machine in a local restaurant introduces us to Owen (Sam Rockwell, Moon, Seven Psychopaths) and leads to Duncan, on one of his attempts to get away from the source of his sullenness, being drawn onto the staff of Water Wizz, the local water park.
Before our eyes, Duncan becomes a different person. Under a barrage of good humor from Owen, and some odd adventures as the new guy (breakdancing?????), Duncan loosens up. His hunched, tense presence becomes one of confidence and joy. He practically radiates happiness. He becomes a favorite of the park staff – Caitlin (Maya Rudolph, Bridesmaids), Roddy (Nat Faxon, Ben & Kate, The Descendants) and, maybe, even Lewis (Jim Rash, community, The Descendants) – and the
And, through, Owen, we also see that Kip isn’t really a Peter Pan at all, but that it’s a façade he puts on to keep up with Joan. We even start to feel sympathy for him – though never for Joan. She’s as bad as (and with) Trent – though Pam seems to not notice, leading to a tearful moment in the film’s last act.
The Way, Way Back doesn’t stray far from the conventions of the coming of age movie, but – thanks to sharp writing by directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (whose small roles are also terrific) – there a few new wrinkles in genre. The film is also perfectly cast – especially in the case of James. The whole film rides on his initially hunched shoulders – if we don’t buy him as this badly done by kid, it won’t matter of every other character is performed beautifully. But not only do we buy him as Duncan, by time we reach the end of The Way, Way Back, it’s impossible to envision anyone else in the part.
Along the way, we get some lovely relationships built up – Owen and Caitlin are interesting for her maybe giving him the impetus to consider not staying locked in to his just-past-adolescent state; Duncan and Susanna find something in common, and even Peter makes some friends. What makes things work, is that all these things are come at from not quite the usual directions, so they feel as fresh as the first day of summer – with all its possibilities just waiting to be explored.
I have to make special mention of Carell’s performance. He’s never played a genuine jerk before – Michael Scott was more of an oblivious twit – but he does a bang-up job of making Trent loathsome. It’s very impressive.
Rockwell’s Owen is a riff on the personification of the Peter Pan Syndrome – he knows exactly when to go over the top, when to pull back and when to be vulnerable. Owen is one of his best performances – and that’s saying a lot.
Janney, too, knows just how far over the top to take her character. If she were to go too far, we’d never see her vulnerability – we’d never see why Pam actually came to like her. She doesn’t have many moments where we get to see her more vulnerable side, but there’s just exactly enough of them.
Another key ingredient is the cast’s chemistry. There may other actors who could have played each of the roles as well, but that indefinable, intangible thing that arises between exactly the right combination of players is in evidence here. Like Adventureland, or say, Little Miss Sunshine, chemistry, writing, direction and performance come together in The Way, Way Back to produce a small miracle of a movie.
Final Grade: A+
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight