Summertime Blues, by James T. Sheridan
The unfortunate tagline for The Way, Way Back reads “We’ve all been there,” and I think by the end of the film, many of us have not been to these very specific and increasingly unbelievable dramatic scenarios, but the film’s portrait of teenage awkwardness set amidst a summer complete with beach, beach house, and water park has both a resonance and a reserve of kind humor. While not entirely successful, The Way, Way Back has its charms and laughs as the first feature film directed by the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of The Descendants.
Trent (Steve Carell) opens the film with an uncomfortable interrogation of his girlfriend’s fourteen-year-old son Duncan (Liam James) as seen from Duncan’s perspective in the way way back seat in the older car that faces backwards showing the road spooling out behind it. Duncan’s mom Pam (Toni Collette) sleeps in the passenger seat, as does Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), sprawled across the back seat. Trent wants Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10; Duncan recoils at the idea. Trent is only seen as a disembodied set of eyes floating in the rearview mirror, making the scene all the more unnerving (as well as a nice inversion of Steve Carell’s nice guy persona). When Duncan suggests a 6, Trent counters with a 3 and proceeds to list the reasons why. It is an unsettling way to begin a summer comedy film, a bit of bullying that feels painful and shocking, and the movie is indeed about how Duncan deals with the uncomfortable gaze of others.
A child of divorce, thinking he would rather have been in California with his father, Duncan settles in for an awkward summer in Trent’s beach house where his mom transforms into a different and possibly happier person, where Steph heaps buckets of scorn upon him for no reason, and where Trent continues to grate on his nerves. Duncan’s only solace comes from staring at the girl next door, listening to REO Speedwagon, and riding a pink bicycle with handlebar streamers around the town. On one of his sojourns, Duncan discovers Water Wizz Water Park, drawing the attention of a confident, smooth-talking employee Owen (Sam Rockwell), who has an answer for everything, defies authority, and seems as fun as Duncan is morose. Soon, Owen hires Duncan and mentors him about the perks of the park and drops life wisdom and aphorisms upon him. The summer becomes Duncan’s chance to start afresh at a new job that he hides from Pam and Trent, as well as a chance to figure out his identity.
Again, there is much here to like. Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, and both director/screenwriters Nate Faxon and Jim Rash all have terrific moments. Janney tries to steal every scene that she is in, sometimes painfully, while Rockwell unspools dialogue like a mid-nineties Vince Vaughn, never pausing, bulldozing through joke after joke, delivered through his brash style married to his unkempt hair and scruffy face. His arrested development and autonomy appeals greatly to the conflicted Duncan, but I cannot help shaking the idea that Owen is more a writer’s idealized creation than an actual character. Rockwell’s winning performance made me wish that he were in even more of the film since he has all the best lines.
The movie shifts often between Water Wizz and Trent’s home, attempting to straddle both worlds, but failing to do either justice. A film like 2009’s Adventureland presents the idea of a summer job as surrogate family more deeply and comprehensively. The Way Way Back offers some fuzzy truths about not following patterns set by someone else and relies on its soundtrack in moments to telegraph exactly how the characters feel. In order to fully buy into Duncan’s transformation, the directors needed to spend more time in the park with him learning and acclimating himself to the community there. Instead, a dancing sequence provides the shortcut into Duncan’s acceptance. It would have benefitted from more time showing him learning.
Duncan’s absences from home make the water park adventures more difficult to absorb as well. He traveled to Trent’s house with his mother, and then she seems to want little to do with him once they arrive. He is gone all day, six days a week, ostensibly for weeks, but this causes no real concerns? Unfortunately, Toni Collette as Pam and Maya Rudolph as Owen’s boss/girlfriend Caitlin are both given little to do here. Steve Carell’s character is distinctly unlikable, robbing him of any dramatic arc but also giving the actor little to shade. Liam James’s reserved performance seems mostly nonverbal for the much of the film, complete with random outbursts and anger befitting the character. I found the growing romance between Duncan and neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) unsatisfying and one plot strand too many. By the end, the film seems unsure of how to handle its own climactic moment (though it does not resort to violence, refreshingly), though it does pull off a perfect final shot tying back to that opening scene, as well as the title.
A sign of a good movie is if I would want to spend more time with these characters and in their world. I think that in the case of The Way, Way Back, I would like to spend more time with some of them and some of their world. I think there is a rich film in here that focuses more on the Water Wizz environs and the wonderfully madcap Owen, the likable Roddy, and the germaphobe Lewis.
I would rank them all at 10, but the movie gets more of a 6.
I agree with you almost verbatim. I felt Sam Rockwell’s Owen was overwritten (doing that thing where, when a writer seems unhappy with a joke they’ve written, they make the character signpost that the joke isn’t great). I also felt that there were too many unsubstantiated plot points (e.g. Duncan’s relationship with his father) and that the romance between Duncan and Susanna was unfulfilled and unsatisfying. But overall, I rather liked it.