The Way Way Back (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just before arriving at their summer beach house, Trent (Steve Carell) asks Duncan (Liam James) to rate himself between one and ten. The fifteen-year-old refuses to entertain the man he does not get along with but is forced to provide an answer eventually. Duncan assigns himself a six while Trent says he is a mere three. The boy is hurt by the assessment he did not ask for and so he remains quiet in the back of the 1970 Buick station wagon. This is only one of the many ways that Trent exerts his power over the teenager and Duncan already knows it is going to be a very long summer in Cape Cod.
Many of us have seen movies about young adults who learn something about themselves while working with a group of colorful people during the summer. One of the most memorable in the past five years is Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” balancing amusement and heart so effortlessly that it feels like a true product of the ‘80s. “The Way Way Back” contains elements that are familiar, but small touches in the writing and direction by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash allow it stand above the sub-genre. I think that those who remember being a teenager and feeling trapped will find themselves investing in the film.
Credit to Allison Jones for casting the right actors. James embodies such an unhappy protagonist not only through his dejected facial expressions but also in his posturing—how Duncan’s back is hunched just a little, the lack of spring in his step, and how he looks so isolated even when surrounded by very energetic people. Speaking of energy, Allison Janney as the next door neighbor is a complete riot. She reminds me of my aunts who effortlessly light up the room during family gatherings. Even when Janney is not in the frame, her laughter is so recognizable that my eyes desperately search for her.
The most subtle performance, however, is delivered by Sam Rockwell, the manager of a water park where Duncan is eventually invited to work. Owen is worthy of our attention because his mind seems to be all over the place but immediately he is able to recognize the sadness in Duncan. Rockwell is smart to play the role as both an older brother and a father figure since Duncan does not have either. In one scene, Rockwell effortlessly switches between being a guide and a friend without pushing so hard or resting on quirks that we are reminded of watching a performance. As a result, the relationship between Owen and Duncan is believable, sweet, and true.
One of the reasons why the material does not come across as tawdry is because some relationships are acknowledged but never really delved into. Duncan develops a crush on Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the girl next door, but what they share is more tender than romantic. Also, the mother-son relationship feels a bit distant but there is no arc designed to push them into understanding each other a little bit better. The screenplay is right to focus on Duncan learning to feel comfortable with who he is by working at the water park. Sometimes he is forced into uncomfortable situations but through them we see him grow just a little bit, that he can be vulnerable without us having to feel sorry for him all the time.
The best coming-of-age movies exude a love for their subjects and “The Way Way Back” embraces such a quality. When I see great work like this, I get frustrated that so many teen movies these days rely on the subject of sex to elicit easy laughs. This one chooses to take a more thoughtful approach: the protagonist’s contentment hinging on being accepted—whether he be a six or a three.