The Way Way Back (2013)

| August 9, 2013

The title The Way, Way Back refers to the back seat of a 1978 Buick Station Wagon, with the seat that faced out the back of the rear window.  As the movie opens, we meet Duncan, a painfully awkward 14 year-old whose position in that seat might be a metaphor for his current position in life.  That’s especially true when the seat belongs to his mom’s new boyfriend Trent, a well-meaning but quietly dominating presence who tells the kid that one a personality scale of 1-to-10, he’s a 3.  That’s a horrible thing to say to a child, but we sense that while Duncan sees himself as The Best Person In The Room, he’s really no better.

The Way, Way Back is the story of Duncan’s journey away from that terrible comment.  Yes, this is a Coming-of-Age story in which “Nothing will ever be the same after that magical summer,” but it is a smart and very funny movie that entertains with smart characters and funny dialogue.  It’s the kind of movie that you’re not sure that you want to see until you’ve seen it.  In the midst of a lousy summer at the movies, here is one that lets you walk out with a smile on your face.  What more could you ask for?

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, it tells the story of Duncan (Liam James), a gawky adolescent who is lingering at that age where he’s too old to be a kid but not old enough to be treated like a teenager.  He is so buried in his insecurities that he might almost seem invisible.  Hunched over, with his hair in his eyes, he’s so self-conscious that when he speaks he has to start over several times before he can get a word out.

We meet Duncan on the way to spend the summer at a beach house with this mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell).  She’s a good-natured doormat and he’s one of those type-A personalities that insists on getting Duncan to “man-up.”  He hates Trent with a double-barreled passion and we can easily see why.  This is not, thankfully, one of those movies that is centered the bullying parent squares off against a defenseless kid.  That relationship takes place at the edges of the film.  This is more about how he discovers himself away from an adult world that he wants nothing to do with.

Trent and Pam spend a lot of time with their friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Betty (Allison Janney), laughing, drinking and talking about how rotten the kids are.  Duncan becomes desperate for something to do, and one day runs across a water park called “Water Whiz,” where he meets the manager, a good guy named Owen (Sam Rockwell), one of those irresponsible types who is, never-the-less, a party to be around.  He sees something special in young Duncan, and takes a liking to him.  Showing him the fun side of life, Owen is a tonic to the dominating man-figure back home that is threatening to become his step-father.  He offers the kid a job, and takes him under his wing.  Everything that Owen says is funny, and everything Owen tells Duncan will change his nature and his soul.  This is one of those movies where you can physically see the change in the hero taking place.  Note the difference between the Duncan we see at the beginning and the one that we see at the end.

Liam James occupies the role of Duncan in a good performance, taking us through the various stages of his maturity.  But it is Sam Rockwell who really brings this movie to life.  Rockwell is a very good actor who never gets his due credit.  You may have seen him as Wild Bill in “The Green Mile,” or as Hammer in “Iron Man.”  Here he gives a wonderful performance as a guy who is good-hearted down to his bones.  Nearly every line he utters is funny, and at a crucial moment of family crisis, he offers the kid a soothing life lesson that doesn’t feel force from the screenplay.

The Way, Way Backis one of those movies that just feels right.  The characters feel right.  The situation feels right.  You get caught up in the story and you find yourself entertained.  It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but you’re happy that it makes you laugh, and dodges silly clichés and dumb gags.  It a great tonic after a summer of cacophony.  After your brain has been beaten senseless by robots, monsters, zombies, apocalypses, crummy futures, and men made of steel and iron, here is a sweet and very funny movie that isn’t perfect, but is funny and very entertaining.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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