The Way, Way Back (2013)

13 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You ever have that experience when you’re there with what seems like the wrong people at the wrong place and time, and you can’t leave because you don’t know where else to go? And during those times, were you ever picked on for being so awkward by simply being there and not contributing to the conversation everyone else is having? Has this happened many times in your life? Chances are this has happened to us numerous times, and most often when we were young and attending family reunions or other social events.

It’s always a most uncomfortable situation because not only are you not relevant to the conversation these people are having, and don’t have much input (if any at all), but you barely know these people to feel like you want to be part of it. You’re just sort of stuck there, not knowing what to do.

“The Way, Way Back” knows what that feels like, as its young protagonist, an awkward, shy, nerdy 14-year-old named Duncan (Liam James), is dragged to the beach house of his divorced mom’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and is the butt of humiliation when he isn’t bored of being stuck in the middle of uncomfortable get-togethers with Trent and his neighbors and friends. It’s one thing to be stuck on vacation with your family, because most teenagers don’t enjoy that very much; it’s quite another to be stuck there particularly with someone you don’t like very well.

While Trent sometimes seems like an okay guy, Duncan has legitimate reasons to hate him. In an opening scene, on the drive to the beach house, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a 1-to-10 scale; when Duncan nervously answers “6,” Trent says he sees him as a “3.” Trent has his own ways of “tough love” that show that he surely doesn’t know the full meaning of “sensitivity,” which also puts a bit of a strain on his relationship with Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan’s mother.

By the way, that opening scene is great at setting up the story because it makes us easily sympathize with Duncan and establishes that people can see you how they want and it wouldn’t be very true. We only see Trent in this scene through the rearview mirror so that we see his eyes looking back at Duncan—nicely-done move on the filmmaker’s part.

Anyway, Duncan is trapped at this beach house with nothing to do and no one to hang out with, until he discovers the local water park, called “Water Wizz.” There, he meets the park’s offbeat manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes a liking to the kid and decides to give him a job at the park. So, while Duncan has to endure the behavior of Trent, his mother, and the next-door neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), (who is always drunk and knows even less about tact than Trent does, and sometimes points out what should never be pointed out in public, even when it has something with her own children) by night, he works the park by day and finds he fits in with the other employees and has fun working the pools and slides. He even learns to be cool, or at least “cool” by Owen’s eyes. It’s a safe haven for him, and he tells no one back at the house about it—the only one who finds out is Betty’s rebellious but sweet teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who also takes a liking to Duncan, if only Duncan can find the right words to say to her.

“The Way, Way Back” is an effective coming-of-age movie in how it presents this gawky, socially weird boy and how he can stand up for himself, talk some sense into his somewhat-meek mother who should know better than to date a jerk like Trent, form a friendship with some unlikely fellows, and even work up the courage to talk to a girl he likes. Duncan is able to do all of this by the time the vacation (and the film) is over. And the transitions are presented in a credible way with intelligent writing and believable characters who don’t like types in the slightest, but real people. Even Trent, who could have been written as a villainous type, is not entirely evil; he’s mainly a flawed individual who isn’t fit for certain situations that require parenthood or reliability. He tries, though. But it doesn’t quite work.

The character of Pam surprised me as the film went on, because early in the film, I wasn’t so sure what this mother figure was going through when socializing with these bizarre characters (including Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet as an offbeat couple) and doing something she shouldn’t be doing, like getting high (as she’s led on by Trent and company). As the movie progresses, you do get to see more of the character and that she is a complete person and not simply a dopey “mom” role. You see that this is a woman who clearly wants as much time with her son as she does fulfilling her own interests, and before the film ends, the relationship between her and her son is mended too.

A lot of nicely-formed characters are put into this screenplay by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also co-directed the film and each have supporting roles as two of the water park workers), and they’re played very well by the actors. Steve Carell is a convincing jerk, which is a surprise considering he’s one of the nicest guys to see on screen or on TV; Toni Collette is very good as Pam; AnnaSophia Robb delivers her best, most sincere performance since “Sleepwalking” five years ago; Allison Janney is freaking hilarious as Betty, and she gets some of the funniest moments in the film; the actor who gets the rest of the film’s funniest moments is definitely Sam Rockwell, who is just excellent as the park owner Owen (I mean it—this performance needs to be seen to be believed; writing about it doesn’t do it well); and last but definitely not least, Liam James is perfectly natural in playing the awkward teenager who comes of age and becomes more comfortable with his life.

“The Way, Way Back” is a very charming film that also has a seamless blend of humor and drama, mainly because the comedy plays from the awkwardness and unpredictability of most of these events. Aside from character moments from Betty and Owen and some of the park workers (including Maya Rudolph as Owen’s potential girlfriend who can’t take any more of his antics), there are laughs that just come from simple things, like a legend on one of the waterslides, for example. They add to the charm and appeal of this film.

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