Movie Review: The Way, Way Back (2013)
“The Way, Way Back,” a sweet, coming-of-age movie, is just a little too.
Duncan, (Liam James), a 14-year-old forced to spend the summer at his mom’s boyfriend’s beach house, is just a little too silent and slouched. Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend, is too much of a macho asshole, while the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), is way too pretty and caring. She’s there to notice what’s happening in Duncan’s life and bring him out of his shell. Apparently she has no life of her own. She’s just there to serve the geeky boy’s story. As all pretty girls do.
As a result, the movie is just a little too simple. What exactly does Duncan learn here? Others learn. They learn the world is almost exactly as Duncan sees it.
1 to 10
The movie opens with one of the oddest conversations I’ve heard between an adult and a teenager in the movies.
Trent is driving up to his summer place with his new girlfriend, Pam (Toni Collette), asleep in the passenger seat; his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), asleep in the backseat; and Pam’s silent, awkward son Duncan, awake in the way, way back of Trent’s classic, wood-paneled station wagon. Duncan wants to be alone with his thoughts but Trent more or less bullies him into conversation. He asks if he’s asleep. He wonders how Duncan sees himself. Then he tries to ascribe a number to it. On a scale of 1 to 10, what are you?
Trent: You don’t have any opinion?
Trent: I’m just asking.
Trent: Pick a number.
Duncan: A six.
Trent: A what?
Duncan: A six.
Trent: I think you’re a three …
He tells him he’s too passive and misses opportunities. “Plenty of opportunities at my beach house this summer,” he says. “One day we could become a family,” he says. “So what do you say? Let’s try to get that score up, huh?”
You think: Either this guy is clumsily attempting to get Duncan out of his shell or he’s a massive asshole, belittling the belittled as a way to mark territory that no one is remotely threatening. You hope for the former. You hope for nuance.
Nope. The dude’s a dick. And he becomes more of a dick the more we see him. He continues to bully and belittle Duncan—making him wear a life vest on a boat where everyone else is free of them. He’s petty about board games and vindictive when threatened. He winds up cheating on Pam with Joan (Amanda Peet), and when this becomes known in a too-public argument, he tells Duncan, who repeats that he just wants to spend the summer with his father, that he isn’t doing that because his father doesn’t want him. Nobody wants him. It’s reminiscent of that great scene in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” when Gary (a young Joaquin Phoenix) calls his father to live with him only to get rebuffed—except it’s not nearly as poignant.
Trent’s daughter, Steph, is an awful person, too, and she doesn’t want to hang with Duncan, who’s quiet and geeky and wears jeans to the beach. At times he seems like a Michael Shannon in training. It takes half the summer before someone suggests he puts on a swimsuit. Duncan’s mom? She’s too busy with Trent and the other adults. Susanna calls their beachside town “spring break for adults” and it is. The grown-ups drink too much, go out on boats; drink too much, sit around a campfire; drink too much, stumble around in the dark. They don’t act like parents. They act like people grasping at some sad, last bit of happiness before they begin the downhill slide. It’s autumn break.
The ultimate big brother
Duncan, 14, with his whole life ahead of him, tools around town on the only transportation available: a pink bike with tassels on the handlebars. He meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) at a pizza joint playing Pac-Man, and again at a water park, Water Wizz, where Owen lives, and where he deals with his own stunted life by being larger than life and joshing with everyone. “You’re going to have to leave,” he tells Duncan, a sad sack sitting by himself. “You’re having way too much fun and people are complaining.” After he gets Duncan a job at Water Wizz, he asks him to break up a couple of kids breakdancing poolside. “Worse-case scenario,” Owen tells him, “they beat you up and you’re horribly disfigured.”
If Pac-Man, break-dancing and station wagons—and with them, the very concept of “the way, way back,” which would be lost on today’s SUV-riding kids—seem more 1980s than 2010s, just wait. We also hear “New Sensation” by INXS. Owen talks through the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” then recounts the entire plot of “Footloose” to an uncomprehending teen crowd. One gets the feeling that writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also play Wizz employees Roddy and Lewis) originally wrote this as a period piece but were forced to update. Maybe they had it in a drawer since the ‘90s. Maybe it finally got greenlit after the success of “The Descendants,” which they co-wrote with Alexander Payne. But it feels set in the past. No one’s texting anyone. Duncan’s mom doesn’t give her smartphone to Duncan so he’ll keep in touch. She can’t, because it’s really the 1980s.
I like how the actors are cast against type. Carell has never played annoying in the macho American tradition, and he’s good at it, but Rockwell steals the movie. The actor who usually plays schitzy and scuzzy is here the ultimate mentor/big brother, setting the shy kid on his own path, building him up and bringing him out. Of course Duncan idolizes him. So did I, and I’m 50.
In a smaller role, Allison Janney shines as Susanna’s mom, Betty, who always has hair askew, a drink in one hand, and an awkward, often embarrassing revelation to proclaim to the world. She’s brassy. But as Susanna’s mom? At the end, from Duncan’s perspective, we see them hug, and Janney, with her big features, towers over Robb, with her delicate features. She’s envelopes her. She makes Robb seem like a delicate French hors d’oeuvre she’s about to devour.
Liam James is good in the lead, too, although he ultimately seems more silent than sullen. He seems too mature. Near the end, his mother finally visits Water Wizz and sees his photo decorating the “Employee of the Month” board. He’s grinning awkwardly, eagerly, as if Owen had just made him laugh. There’s something gloriously geeky about it. It’s probably the first time she’s seen him smile in months. That photo broke my heart in a way the rest of the movie didn’t.
“The Way, Way Back” obviously recalls “Adventureland,” the 2009 coming-of-age comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg: amusement park, summer, pretty girl. It also less-obviously recalls “Mud,” a coming-of-age story set in Arkansas along the White River: kid with family troubles, gloms onto charismatic rebel, helps him with his business.
In “Mud,” though, Ellis discovers the world isn’t full of absolutes; it’s full of shades of gray. Duncan doesn’t learn that here. He doesn’t begin to see the world from an adult perspective; the adult, his mom, begins to see it from his. In the end, she climbs into the way, way back with him. They’re a team again because Trent is such an asshole. But that’s not much of an answer. Earlier, Owen tells Duncan not to let Trent define him, but that’s what the movie does. It constructs its ending, its resolution, in opposition to the awfulness of Trent.
Did Duncan need to learn nothing? A lot of trouble could’ve been avoided, for example, if he’d simply told his mom where he was going every day. “Hey Mom. I got a job at this place called Water Wizz. Pretty fun. See ya!”
I know: Being 14 is rough. I think of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. The kids at 7 are outgoing and lively, then at 14, boom, they all retreat inward, as if shocked and stupefied by adolescence. I was the same. In 1978, when I was 15, our family visited Rehoboth Beach, Del., our summer retreat. On the drive out, Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” kept playing on the radio, and I thought how cool it would be to meet a girl named Jill, like in the song. When it didn’t happen, when I didn’t meet any girls (because I was too skinny and silent and brooding like Duncan), I invented her. I pretended to friends back home, or a friend back home, that I’d had a girlfriend at the beach. Yeah, I was that guy. I look back now and shake my head. Will Duncan, in middle age, look back at this summer and shake his head at anything he did? In the end, it turned out pretty well for him. He made friends, came out of his shell, kissed a pretty girl. Plus his mom realized what a jerk that Trent was. Why, it was almost like a movie.