While sitting in the way, way back of his mother’s boyfriend’s station wagon, fourteen-year-old Duncan is asked by his paternal fill-in to elaborate on what he makes of himself, on a scale of one to ten. Duncan is none too eager to answer this question – he is a pale, hunched-over teen with little sense of humor – one to be called “lame” if he weren’t so sad and pathetic. When he fails to respond with the desired enthusiasm, Trent, the boyfriend, declares Duncan to be a solid “three”, expressing his hope that during the coming summer vacation he will manage to “boost that score.”
Duncan doesn’t respond, and settles in for what will indeed prove to be an empowering summer, but one in which he will grow away from this belittling would-be father-figure and manage to “go his own way”, finding an inner sense of life and capability that he perhaps never knew existed.
This is The Way, Way Back, a comedy-drama written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who just last year represented two-thirds of the winners for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2012 Oscars (along with Alexander Payne) for their work on The Descendants. With this film, one can see parallels to that previous work – there is the same understanding of family dynamics, played up to a higher pitch in a summer-land paradise, and much of the same hinting-at-adolescent-humor, which – for the most part – ends up adding warmth and openness to the story, instead of detracting from its credibility. It doesn’t have the same level of grace as it would have if Payne were involved, but it works all the same.
The story takes root when Duncan’s makeshift family arrives at Trent’s beach house in Massachusetts, where his mother and her boyfriend proceed to spend every night drinking and dining with Trent’s menagerie of childish, stunted friends. This is the part of the movie which I consider to be most noteworthy; the depiction of this middle-aged, developmentally challenged group of people is consistently unsettling and helps to build a solid foundation for our support of Duncan, turning Trent into a beast and Duncan’s mother into a sadly ineffectual figure of emotional support.
Duncan is left all on his own, and after spending a good deal of time wandering around the summerhouse-laden area, he discovers the Water Wizz water park, a sort of idyllic, chlorine-soaked haven where he develops a set of friends who help him break free of his emotional barriers and embrace life for the happy adventure it can be. His main source of inspiration here is found in the figure of Owen – the nonchalant, wise-guy manager of the park whose easygoing attitude challenges Duncan to start seeing distant things as being within his reach.
For all the cheese and predictability one might expect of a movie with this plotline, it turns out to stand on its own two feet with credibility and impact. The writing is mostly clever, aside for its few forays into the afore-mentioned twelve-year-old-sensibilities of comedy, permitting girl-ogling and structure-less sarcasm to enter the mix of what is mostly just cute and zany humor. One might expect that this is a very personal story being related to us, and I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both Mr. Faxon and/or Mr. Rush had similar childhood experiences to those of young Duncan. If so, some childish humor as result of mild arrested development could be one explanation for how two adults could allow themselves to give in to the crassness of middle school-aged comedy.
There are a few golden performances among the cast members: Steve Carell is in fine form as usual, yet unusually hateable, as Trent; Toni Collette is good as Duncan’s lonely and needy mother; and Allison Janney adds another tip-top supporting player-role to her résumé as the wacky and absurd next-door-neighbor, Betty. As Duncan, Liam James is appropriately gawky, and Sam Rockwell works well as Owen, in a role that could have easily been handed to a number of other, more prominent actors, including Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Vince Vaughn, or Ben Stiller.
I was impressed by this movie; expecting very little, I came away with a lot. The Way, Way Back makes for an enjoyable and winning summer comedy about one boy learning to stick up for himself, and his mother. It may not be worth remembering after the summer has ended, so do go see it if you want a break from the bigger blockbuster attractions. It’s a smaller movie that feels very real, and very honest.