Monday, July 29, 2013

The Way, Way Back Movie Review

It’s probably bad enough to be a teenager dealing with the breakup of your parents’ marriage and then getting used to your mom’s new boyfriend, especially when he’s a raging ass. But on top of that, if you happen to be the most introverted and socially awkward teenage boy ever dreamed up by a screenwriter, then you might be the main character in The Way, Way Back, a new family-centered comedy drama from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the team that collaborated with Alexander Payne on The Descendants, another recent film that finesses the line between family drama and human satire in many of the same ways. In their first outing as directors, they exhibit some signs of growing pains, but otherwise have put together a fairly harmless and sweet film that was close to the best fun I’ve had at the movies this year.


The opening scene sets the tone for the relationship between Duncan (Liam James) and his mom’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Driving in the car on the way to his Massachusetts beach house while his own teenage daughter and Duncan’s mom sleep, Trent tells Duncan he thinks he’s a 3 on a scale of 1 – 10. Duncan is mature enough to remark later, “Who says that to a kid?” The complex thing about Trent is that he probably thinks he’s helping Duncan, but he’s completely clueless that this boy, who can barely muster a hello to a girl his age, who walks like he’s always afraid someone’s about to tackle him, who prefers to spend all his free time hanging around his mom rather than socializing, needs a father figure who understands him without calling attention to these things, but can guide him and give him confidence. Of course he finds that father figure in Owen (Sam Rockwell), an overgrown child himself who managers the local water park.

The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age story filled out with the adults who are necessary in their children’s lives, but who are nevertheless emotionally absent. Faxon and Rash have small roles as water park employees and to look at them you might get the sense that they were once socially awkward teenagers: Rash with his wiry frame and thick glasses; Faxon with his prominent upper teeth. Of course I have no way of knowing what kind of crowd they ran with as teens, but judging by the way they write characters, I would guess they were not part of the “in crowd.” To a teen like that, parents probably feel constantly emotionally absent even if they truly aren’t. But the adults in this film need a kick to the head. Trent’s relationship with his daughter, Steph, is barely developed in the script, leaving room instead to focus on how he treats Duncan and his mom, Pam, played by Toni Collette in the role of a divorced mom almost desperate for a return to normal family life, ironically ignoring the needs of her son in the process. Allison Janney plays the neighbor and life of the party Betty, who bursts forth from her home nearly proud that she’s “off the wagon again.” She’s got three kids: a son whom we glimpse only briefly as a pothead; a teenage daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), inexplicably part of that “in crowd” who befriends Duncan; and a pre-teen son with a lazy eye whom she constantly scolds to wear his eye patch so as not to “freak people out.” He astutely observes that she’s a terrible parent. Betty spends most of the time just on the wrong side of inebriated and Janney pulls it off stupendously. If the character had been developed a bit more and perhaps given a scene of some emotional weight, perhaps with Pam, I would say she’s a dark horse candidate for some supporting actress awards at the end of the year. Finally there are Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). They don’t have kids and so they’re generally the instigators of heavy drinking, drug use, and infidelity.

The grown up characters are the best written and acted, some of it so good I almost wish they had chosen instead to make a movie about them. Carell, Colette, and Janney are especially fine in their roles. But writing for teenagers is an entirely different animal. There are few examples of truly exceptional screenwriting for kids. Most recently I think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and also Faxon’s and Rash’s previous screenplay The Descendants. After this, I get the impression that it was primarily Alexander Payne’s touch that made Clooney’s daughters in that film so memorable. All the kids in The Way, Way Back, including Duncan, Steph, Susanna, and a trio of boys who frequent the water park are heavily exaggerated in their personalities. I also think it’s in great part due to poor direction of young actors who don’t quite have the experience to portray such emotionally complex characters. Duncan’s awkwardness is pushed beyond the brink of believability and the young lazy-eyed Peter occasionally looks like he’s smirking beneath every funny line.

But then there’s the other world of the Water Wizz park where Duncan learns to come out of his shell thanks to the young at heart and extroverted Owen. Sam Rockwell hams it up in great spirits as the big kid cum surrogate dad. Faxon and Rash spare us a lot of the usual monologues beginning with “I used to be like you…” or “The only thing you have to believe in is yourself.” The relationship between Owen and Duncan is tasteful and good-natured and never veers toward saccharine. Duncan considers Owen his friend – his mom is marginally troubled by the fact that he has “a friend who drives” – but he provides the young man much more than friendship. Owen is the steady male figure he needs in his life because we know his father is probably never going to make that call for him to come live in California.

Yes, there is some reliance on typical Hollywood convention, particularly in the third act when Duncan runs off to attempt a stunt of derring-do that has been alluded to several times throughout. It provides a convenient moment for his entire family to come together and see that he’s led something of an alternative life all summer in a place where he’s accepted and sweetly adored not only by Owen, but also by the supporting characters played by Faxon and Rash and Caitlin, the object of Owen’s affection played by Maya Rudolph. The film ends on a quietly triumphant note between mother and son, and it all feels right like maybe she’s going to start making good decisions – decisions that put his happiness above her own – something that most of the adults can’t grasp, and that a few of them manage to learn.

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