December 11, 2013
And he can’t fight this feeling anymore
The Way Way Back is a refreshing take on an old genre: the coming-of-age movie
For an introverted 14-year-old boy going through a rough patch, can it get any worse than his overbearing stepfather bluntly telling him that, on a scale from one to 10, he would rate the kid a three? Three, that’s what the hapless, shoulder-bent Duncan (Liam James) gets from his mother’s new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), while travelling in a station wagon to his summer home in a small, dreary, seaside town.
This is how Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s dramedy The Way Way Back throws the dice — a problem-solution pattern that must follow certain conventions, however trite, to stay afloat and steer the ship to its port of call.
Duncan’s mother, Pam (Toni Collette) feigns sleep, but is secretly appalled by her beau’s derogatory comments. However, out of stupefaction and fear, she does nothing to avoid the everlasting wound inflicted on the teen boy. The three, along with Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) are still in the process of binding, of creating a family, at least this is what Trent and Pam would like to believe. Pam, a recently divorced mum, sits quietly in the passenger seat, Steph is sprawled on the back seat listening to music, and Duncan, in line with the movie’s title and his position in real life, is sitting in the rear-facing seat in the trunk of the car.
Happy family? Fat chance. When the foursome finally arrive at what Trent considers a shelter from urban hell, Duncan and his mum, new in Trent’s life, new to the sprawling, tightly-knit summertime community, must make an effort to fit in.
As Pam struggles to play perfect housewife and host, Duncan finds himself increasingly alienated. His stepsister evidently belittles him or, at best, simply ignores him, and so do her circle of friends, winners all of them. Duncan is clearly on the losers’ side. Pam befriends next-door neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), boozy and in need of a man to fill her empty life with. She seems to be having a good time at her beach house, though, in the company of her three children.
Unable to fit and sorely missing his home and his father, who has moved to San Diego with his new partner, Duncan feels utterly miserable. It has a sudden encounter with a middle-aged but youthful man, Owen (Sam Rockwell) to shake Duncan’s apathy. Owen owns and runs Water Wizz, the summer resort’s only water park, a 1980s, family-oriented entertainment facility probably headed for demolition but proudly saved by Owen and his small bunch of employees/friends.
Although The Way Way Back takes place in the present, there’s an overall feeling that this is the mid 80s, a time to look back on with a curious mixture of nostalgia for something lost and never recovered, even if it’s not clear what that something was.
There’s a couple of hints that this is a throwback to those days, such as Duncan belting out REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Take This Feeling Anymore, and Owen playing Pac Man on an old machine. Perhaps that elusive thing both Duncan and Owen long for is a reassuring sign from up above that summer will never be over, that the tourists will never go, that the deck chairs will not be folded back waiting for the next summer.
The Way Way Back must be the first time comedian Steve Carell doesn’t get to play an overtly goofy character. After all, his dictatorial, oppressive Trent, is an attractive, tanned, ably-bodied forty-something with a new wife and a little dish to massage his ego — a quantum leap from Carell’s long string of dopey characters fighting for a way out of typecasting. Although Carell does get star billing in The Way Way Back, he doesn’t have much screentime and it’s little Duncan, who sits in the back seat, who actually drives the action in this surprisingly fresh, pleasant coming-of-age story.
Sam Rockwell plays a protective friend and paternal figure for Duncan, for whom this unexpectedly short summer will be bitter sweet and unforgettable.
The Way Way Back / Un camino hacia mí. US, 2013. Written and directed by: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. With: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Liam James, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph. Music by: Rob Simonsen. Cinematography by: John Bailey. Editing by: Tatiana S. Riegel. Distributed by: Diamond Pictures. NR. Running time: 103 minutes.