THE WAY WAY BACK
2013, PG-13, 96 mins.
2013, PG-13, 96 mins.
Liam James as Duncan / Steve Carell as Trent / Sam Rockwell as Owen / Toni Collette as Pam / Amanda Peet as Joan / Maya Rudolph as Caitlyn / Allison Janney as Betty / AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna
Written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon
remember the summers of my early teens like it were yesterday. They seemed
to literally go on forever and without any care or sense of responsibility
in the world. I fondly recall
frequenting a water slide park in Saskatoon called Penguin Park, and for
hours upon hours my friends and I would wildly venture
on any of their slides – no matter how miniscule or potentially
frightening – like there was no tomorrow.
Most importantly, the park was a form of escape from the everyday;
a place where we could bond, form new bounds with others, and collectively
be away from whatever life was taxing us with.
When Penguin Park was closed and dismantled, I nearly wept.
WAY WAY BACK – one of the most authentically rendered coming-of-age
films that I’ve seen in many a moon – instantly made me recall my
adolescent summers at the water park.
It has a young main character that's seeking refuge from the
stresses of his daily family life and finds it at a local water park.
Superficially, THE WAY WAY BACK has many of the standard
accoutrements of countless other similar genre films; it hardly reinvents
the wheel in terms of narrative and themes. Yet, what it does – and does with thankless and frank
honesty – is observe all of the warts-and-all truths that plague many
teenage souls that are desperately trying to figure out who they are and
how they fit into a larger world that they don’t really understand. More than many other coming-of-age dramedies, THE WAY WAY
BACK is compellingly spot-on in terms of chronically just how painfully
awkward it is for a boy trying to become a self-actualized young adult. While watching it, I saw so much of myself in the film’s
young protagonist that it almost became autobiographical, and for a film
to immerse me as deeply as that is a major feat in itself.
14-year-old main character in the film is both simultaneously identifiable
and sympathetic while also being cringe-worthy to endure, mostly because
he is so chronically unsure of himself within his own skin.
He’s Duncan (Liam James, a wonderfully natural young performer),
and when we first meet him in the film he has a perpetual frown and
watery eyed stare that makes it look like he’s about to burst into tears
at any waking moment. He’s so silent that you’d think he was a deaf-mute, and
when he does speak he comes off as terrified.
This kid just does not want to engage with anyone or anything.
Duncan is arguably one of the most exasperatingly self-conscious,
timid, and anti-social characters I’ve seen in a film.
He’s not detestable, though; just kind of hopelessly ill at ease.
opening scene sets up Duncan and his family with brilliant economy.
To his credit, his family life is kind of a disaster.
His divorced mother, Pam (the always fine and poised Toni Collette)
has become involved with Trent (Steve Carell), a single dad with his own
teenage daughter. Initially,
Trent seems like he’s going to be the proverbial nice guy of the film,
but the opening scene – taking place in a car ride up to Trent’s beach
house – is kind of merciless in its low-key cruelty.
Trent tries to engage Duncan in a conversation as he asks the kid to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10.
After refusing to answer numerous times, Duncan begrudgingly
replies that he’s a 6. Trent
then matter-of-factly retorts that Duncan’s just a 3 in his book.
You know that this relationship will never be rosy.
they arrive at Trent’s beach home Duncan does whatever he can possibly
do to avoid his family at all costs (and just about any other person for
that matter). He does become
kind of smitten with his neighbor's attractive blonde daughter, Susanna
(AnnaSophia Robb), but seems totally clueless as to how to maintain any
semblance of a conversation with her.
He does find salvation, so to speak, in the town’s water park,
affectionately called “Water Wizz,” run by Owen (a crackerjack Sam
Rockwell) who takes pity on Duncan and gives him a day job at the park.
The more Duncan spends time at his new job and new surrogate family
in Owen and his staff, the more he is able to crawl out from within is own
shell of meager gawkiness. This catches the attention of Susanna, who starts to take a
liking to the new and more outgoing Duncan, but just when things seem to
be going well for him, his life back at home takes a dark detour.
WAY WAY BACK marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (they previously won an Oscar for writing THE
DESCENDANTS) and it’s a highly auspicious one.
They seem to have a command of infusing in their film innumerable
scenes where they understand all of the observational nuances of their
characters and predicaments. They
never seem to soft pedal the material for a cheap emotional payoff or
allow for the film to descend into obtrusive genre clichés.
Even when we can see where the story is headed, there’s so much
raw veracity in nearly all the scenes that it makes you willing to forgive
the plot’s innocent plunge into predictability.
THE WAY WAY BACK balances heart-warming sentiment, hysterical
merriment, and edgy pathos in ways that most other films – coming-of-age
or not – only wished they could.
pitch-perfect performances only compliment the film’s richly modulated
writing. Liam James
miraculously makes Duncan a deeply compassionate character despite his
frustrating quirks; in a lesser young actors hands Duncan would have been
unendurable, but James captures his characters nauseating unease and
slowly growing maturity with secure confidence.
His scenes with AnnaSophia Robb (another genuine screen presence)
never seem to have a false note. I
also liked the sublime Allison Janney as Susanna’s frequently inebriated
and sometimes too-outspoken-for-her-own-good mother.
Steve Carell always seems to play affable characters in the movies,
so it was a real treat to witness him go completely against type to play a
selfish SOB that wants to come off as a nice guy.
Then there’s the limitlessly appealing Rockwell as the water park
owner and new BFF/paternal figure to Duncan, who seems to have an innate
ability to make just about every film he’s in exponentially better.
He makes Owen both a loveable motormouth that lives for
disobedience and a touchingly vulnerable character at the same time.
Rockwell is all kinds of all right in the film.
WAY WAY BACK does so many things so well that its inherent foibles seem to
disappear. It manages to
evoke a sense of time and place when we were all young, unsure, anxiety
plagued, and wanted nothing more than to get away to the simplistic
pleasures of places like Water Wizz.
Beneath that, though, the film also probes the emotional wounds of
Duncan with a brutal precision and truthfulness. I loved how Faxton and Rash don’t build the film towards
big, obvious crowd-pleasing
playoffs; in the end, it’s not really about whether Duncan will get the
hot girl next door or whether his mom will dump the unmitigated jerk that
is Trent. The conclusion –
which culminates on one final and perfectly rendered shot – relays that
Duncan’s life will not only continue to be beset with nagging complications (after all,
life just is), but also that a renewed sense of optimism is in the air.
THE WAY WAY BACK put a smile on my face from ear-to-ear after
seeing it. Actually, it’s
still on my face.