It’s that time of the year where the summer mega-blockbuster releases start dwindling and the studios start releasing more critically acclaimed films in preparation of next years Oscars. Many of these films have already made the festival circuit, among them being The Way Way Back, which received high praise at Sundance this year. After seeing last year’s The Descendants, which won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, I’ve had my eye on what writers Tim Rash and Nat Faxon would be doing next. I wasn’t disappointed as Rash and Faxon have again wrote (and this time directed) another engaging, personal, and often hilarious story of adolescent youth.
In The Way Way Back, this coming-of-age story follows Duncan, a socially awkward 14-year old, whose parents are divorced. Duncan’s mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is dating Trent (Steve Carell), who decides to take all three, along with his own daughter, Steph, to the East Coast for vacation at a beach house. Instead of developing over the course of the film, each character’s first introduction immediately divulges their personality. For example, the first scene in the film involves Trent asking Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Duncan reluctantly plays along, revealing that he sees himself as a six. Through his demeanor, we instantly realize that Duncan doesn’t feel too confident about himself, but instead of over-reaching and answering nine or ten, he instead plays it safe by going with six. Trent’s response to Duncan is that he sees him as a three, but that he has an opportunity during the summer to move up on the scale. This is a rather blunt response from Trent, revealing that while he means well for Duncan, doesn’t have much tact for handling teenagers during their awkward years. Upon arriving at the beach house, we’re introduced to Pam, who is cautiously optimistic about both her summer and her relationship with Trent, as well as overly mothering Duncan, who follows her around like a lost puppy dog. They are soon greeted by their loud and gregarious alcoholic neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), who introduces her lazy-eyed son, Peter, and daughter, Susanna to the arriving family. Virtually ignored by Steph, and a third-wheel between his mother and Trent, Duncan escapes on a pink bike he finds in the garage to roam the town in hopes of passing the time. After briefly encountering a Water Wizz employee at a pizza diner, he discovers the water park where again meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), whose jokes and mile-a-minute banter is all but lost on Duncan. Over time, Duncan spends more and more of his time at the water park, becoming an employee as well as learning social skills and making friends of those who work there. As he gains more confidence in himself, he is able to forge relationships as well as confront many of the insecurities within himself.
The coming-of-age story isn’t new. Instead it is often employed to overly dramatic and sappy effect. However, every couple years a film manages to capture the spirit of adolescence as well as the struggles of growing up; perfect examples being Stand By Me, The Graduate, Almost Famous, or my personal favorite, The Breakfast Club. Rash and Faxon are able to do just that, crafting a genuinely believable film that is both personal and funny. We have a young, awkward teenager who takes everything too seriously, unaware of sarcasm or how to have fun. It’s no wonder that he take a liking to Owen, who is essential an overgrown child, quick to make jokes and brush off responsibility. In fact, nearly all the adults in the film act as children, as Pam, Trent, and the neighbors partake in late night parties, drugs, and sex. As Susanna observes to Duncan, this place is “spring break for adults”, leaving the children to clean up the messes they create. While Duncan struggles to find his personal identity and carve his own path, Owen slowly learns the consequence of irresponsibility. It is Owen who fulfills the role of a father-figure for Duncan, and together they learn about themselves and what it means to be an adult.
All the characters in The Way Way Back are wonderfully written, but it’s the execution by the actors that makes this movie so pleasing to watch. Liam James is excellent at playing awkward- parading throughout the film with a hunched over back, oversized clothes and swim trunks, ankle high white socks, and a despondent frown planted on his face. It at times seems a little heavy-handed, but when James’ character finally begins to open up and show real emotions, he displays genuine frustration, grief, and pain. Steve Carell plays against type cast, balancing a fine line between self-righteousness and sincerity as a single parent who tries to connect with Duncan for the sake of his mother. Allison Janney feels natural in her role as Betty, who at first comes off obnoxious and abrasive, but is revealed to be someone who genuinely means well. It is Sam Rockwell, however, who steals the show. Delivering most of the laughs, Rockwell expertly delivers his lines, rapidly firing sarcasm and wit as well as delivering pearls of wisdom and insight to Duncan who must traverses the pitfalls of being a teenager. Rockwell’s charm is infectious, especially when paired with James as Duncan. Over the years Sam Rockwell has managed to blend in to his roles, but this is easily his most likable performance.
Handled caringly by Rash and Faxon, and acted superbly by the cast, this is easily one of my favorite films this year thus far. In a summer where the action blockbuster has become mundane and derivative, it’s refreshing to see a smaller, more intimate film that deals with real-world relationships. Hopefully come awards season, it will be remembered and recognized, especially for writers Rash and Faxon along with Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney.