As we left the theater after seeing The Way Way Back, my husband Mike said that this particular movie made up for the string of disappointing summer films we’d wasted our hard-earned money on so far this year (ie. Man of Steel and Now You See Me). And I wholeheartedly agree – The Way Way Back was easily one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in some time and it helped me to forget about a succession of recent less than satisfying movie experiences.
The story centers around 14 year old Duncan, forced to vacation with his mother at her boyfriend’s beach house. Already lacking in self-confidence, Duncan is highly introverted and completely misunderstood by his constantly-derisive potential stepfather Trent, played by Steve Carrell. On a side note, it’s a minor miracle as well as an indicator of this film’s quality that the directors were able to make Carrell, one of today’s most affable working actors, into a villain of sorts. Duncan’s mother Pam, portrayed by Toni Collette, is not so different from her shy son, a pushover who never seems quite comfortable in her own skin, someone who has trouble standing up for herself, let alone her only son. Add in Trent’s catty teenage daughter Steph, a drunken divorcee neighbor named Betty (comically played by the talented Allison Janney), and Kip and Joan, Trent’s wild vacation friends, and Duncan’s vacation is off to a horrible start from the very first day.
What does it take to break an awkward teenage boy, a child of divorce, a kid with no sense of self worth into someone confident, calm, even happy? How can his shell be cracked, his lonely life be made more full? What can possibly overcome the negative reinforcement he finds in his daily life? The Way Way Back’s answer to these problems and many more is Sam Rockwell.
In an effort to escape the people surrounding him in his temporary home, Duncan sneaks off by bike each day and in so doing discovers the local water park, Water Wizz. After catching the eye of Owen, the free spirited and alarmingly lax owner of the park, Duncan gets a job at Water Wizz, a place which soon becomes his daily refuge. In the hands of Sam Rockwell, the character of Owen absolutely comes to life and defines this movie. Though his management style is certainly a cause for concern, Owen is a hilarious and compassionate mentor to Duncan, making jokes that fall far above most of his young customers’ heads but are sure to get laughs from viewers. And never once does Owen demonstrate anything less than great kindness toward his newest employee. Based on what I saw from the trailer, I wasn’t sure how Rockwell’s character would be pulled off – I’m supposed to believe that a decent-looking guy in his mid-thirties randomly takes endless pity on an awkward teenager in town for vacation? The unconventional friendship between the two, however, was flawlessly developed; their meeting seemed not the least bit forced, for it was completely in keeping with Owen’s relentless kindness and sense of fun. Owen’s simple but genuine caring for Duncan does wonders for the uncertain adolescent, instilling in him a sense of place, belonging, and self-assuredness that his meager family life could never have hoped to afford. It was Rockwell’s portrayal of Owen that really won me over with this film – and did so within the first five minutes that he appeared on screen. Owen plays a pivotal role in Duncan’s coming-of-age story, replete with young love, the gaining of confidence (as well as a sense of humor), and family drama.
What I seem to hear again and again from the few people I know that saw this film is how remarkably honest it is. The first twenty minutes are almost painful to watch because Duncan’s reclusive nature is both so authentically portrayed and so desperately sad. But instead of feeling highly contrived, the story unfolds quite effortlessly. Things could not possibly get lower for Duncan, so it’s not stretch for the film to end on its subtle but satisfying climax. The movie leaves viewers with a sense of contentment, but The Way Way Back is more than just a shallow or superficial feel good film.
Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (contributors to The Descendants screenplay) both play delightful supporting roles in the movie, alongside Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Liam James demonstrate true acting prowess as the young Duncan and AnnaSophia Robb is wonderfully poised as Susanna, Duncan’s love interest/neighbor.
Well-acted, satisfying, comedic, and warm and fuzzy without being overly so – not much more I could have asked out of a summer movie. The Way Way Back was a welcome relief from this year’s wannabe blockbusters and poorly executed indies.