A Summer to Remember
The way, way back. That’s where fourteen year-old Duncan sits in the minivan, lodged in the trunk and facing out the rear window. There’s all kinds of significance in the location of his seat, and the subject of the film’s title. Here is a kid whose own wants and desires have all been forgotten ever since his mom’s boyfriend Trent came and swept her away. This Trent, played by a remarkably unlikable Steve Carell, considers Duncan little more than human baggage, so it’s fitting that the boy is confined to the place where luggage is typically stored. After asking Duncan how he would rate himself on a scale of one to ten,Trent shamelessly declares, “I think you’re a three!” It’s an infuriating and depressing line, but it highlights the predicament of a boy suffocated by his surroundings, someone who, gazing out the back of the car, can’t see the road ahead because he can’t stop dwelling on the pain of the past.
What a perfect way to start summer vacation! Set along the beach with parasols, tequila, lapping waves, speedboats and all the sun you could ask for, The Way, Way Back is aglow with the symptoms of idyllic summer cheer, but beneath its veneer run currents of deep emotion and angst. Really, Trent seems to be the only one enjoying himself. His wife/Duncan’s mother Pam, played by a heartbreaking Toni Colette, allows herself to be dragged along as he cavorts with his friends (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), but inside she is lonely and lost. Trent’s daughter, a walking satire of vapid teenage egocentrism, is terrifically bored and harbors insecurities that, though not delved into, clearly exist beneath her well-kempt poise.
And of course there’s Duncan who, played by Liam James, is fantastic at looking miserable. More often than not, he wears his mouth slightly agape in a mixture of helpless boredom and incredulous sadness. In body language and speech, James conveys his character’s bitterness, self-deprecation, and eventual change as Duncan meets two people who will transform his life. One is the snarky, pretty girl-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who befriends him on the basis of their shared opinion that their summers sucks. The other is Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the nearby Water Wizz waterpark, whose staff is populated by the likes of Maya Rudolph (Brides Maids) and the film’s two directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
Rockwell, ever the hyperactive eccentric, brings every ounce of energy he can muster into the role. He’s the wacko, the cool guy, and the class clown all in one, and his performance is phenomenally entertaining, full of silver-tongued wit and reckless charm. But more than that, Rockwell’s Owen feels genuine. As the movie progresses, he becomes a friend and father figure to Duncan, and several of their scenes together have a startling tenderness. Both struggling with their own imperfections, they are able to jive on the same wavelength. Where Duncan is trying to become his own man, Owen is striving to let go of a bit of himself to accommodate others. In this way, the two of them become the perfect match for each other, seeming opposites who end up helping each other grow.
And yes the movie’s about growth, an ensemble coming-of-age story that captures the doubts and anxieties of two different generations embattled by the woes of life. But really, the adult and the adolescent are not all that different from one another. Both seek a sense of security, whether from a significant other or a loving parent. It’s what Duncan lacks, but also what his mother desperately wants and needs from her boyfriend. Both also seek freedom. For Duncan, it’s freedom from Trent, while for Owen it’s the freedom to be unrestrainedly himself. There is often a tension between these two desires, whether involving another person or contained within yourself. A teen’s search for independence coexists with a hunger for a community in which to fit in. Infidelity, the result of one’s yearning for sexual and romantic freedom, clashes with the comforting bedrock of marriage. Reconciling these desires is a lifelong process, and it often involves people getting hurt and relationships getting battered. But with healing comes hope, and it’s this hope that defines the end of The Way, Way Back.
At this point in the review, it may sound as if the film is a heavy, meditative drama when in fact it’s fabulously funny and, at certain moments, positively exuberant. Directors Faxon and Rash wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for The Descendants and, like that film, The Way, Way Back strikes a delicate tone that balances human comedy with the poignant sting of reality. It’s a winning combination, one whose authenticity manages to make even the script’s most awkward moments forgivable. If anything, these moments simply dissolve into a movie that’s all about the messy and the awkward, and the joy that can be salvaged from it all.