Being 14 is often a difficult time. It appears that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote and directed The Way Way Back (2013), are perfectly aware of this, and that’s not good news for Duncan (Liam James), the 14-year-old they put through the wringer in their movie. Every conceivable emotional catastrophe befalls this kid: divorce; the anxiety of noticing girls and, worse, having them not notice you; the people he should trust more than anyone betraying him or not understanding him. These are the landmines of the early teens and poor Duncan hardly comes through unscathed. But he does come through, as many of us do, so that when we look way way back, he can appreciate how funny it all was.
The setting of many a coming-of-age movies, our story takes place over a summer when Duncan is dragged along to the beach house of his mother Pam’s (Toni Collette) new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is amiable to Duncan and may genuinely want to build a real family between Pam’s family and his (Trent has a daughter, a bit older than Duncan, who comes along as well, though mainly to sneer at and ridicule Duncan), but he goes about it all the wrong ways, giving Duncan insensitive challenges to come out of his shell, assessing him as a 3 out of 10 to motivate him, and humiliating and emasculating him in front of his mother. Whether these things come from a desire to do good becomes more questionable as Trent is revealed to be less and less of a good guy, but one thing is true from the beginning, Trent extols platitudes and directives to Duncan that he doesn’t follow himself, nurturing a real resentment from Duncan who, having recently seen his parents split, is full of anger at hypocrisy and distrust.
The beach house is anything but stress-free as the neighbors make a bizarre menagerie of drunks and flirts led by Betty (Allison Janney), who’s both, and Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). The adults get together to drink, carouse and ignore their kids. “It’s like spring break for adults,” says Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Betty’s daughter, who is friendly to Duncan (which terrifies him). Despite being surrounded by all these people, Duncan feels incredibly isolated and communicates through a surly language of grunts, nods, I dunnos, and I guesses.
All this changes when Duncan gets a job at Water Wizz, a dumpy but popular water park run by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the goofy manager whose philosophy seems to be that if he’s having a good time, so must everybody else. Owen takes a liking to Duncan, mainly because his humor, which has charmed his employee Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) into wasting more time with Owen than she should, is met by Owen without notice, and he sees that as a challenge. Under Owen’s wing, Duncan comes out of his shell (he likes being in a place in which there are bigger concerns than Trent’s beloved station wagon). He fits in with the other employees, like Roddy (Faxon), who holds girls at the top of the water slides interminably so he can check them out, and Lewis (Rash), who is the best kind of complainer: bitchy and entertaining, not stern and humorless like Trent. This world is engrossing to Duncan, where adults have fun and are fun, and the real kind of fun, not boozily grabbing at each other like he sees at home, and he gains a confidence that he previously didn’t have.
What the filmmakers do here that is good is present a fairly accurate look at teenage life. There are really two sides of The Way Way Back: the often hilarious antics at the waterpark and the stifling awkward and often painfully angry world of the beach house. This might normally be a failure in consistent tone but so often teens live lives in extremes. When they’re with their friends, they’re joyous young people; when they are in spots they feel threatened or unhappy, antisocial lumps. There are times when the movie is at the beach house when it becomes hostile and you can’t wait for it to change scenes, but that reminded me of my own teenage days when some situations were physically painful to withstand. The Way Way Back also doesn’t let Duncan off the hook, unlike those movies that often cast their teenage hero as a saint who is cruelly put upon by the monstrous adults. Here, the movie veers that way toward the end, but in the beginning Duncan is a dislikable, moody malcontent. While we can see that Trent is mishandling the situation, we feel a certain sympathy for him too because Duncan isn’t making it any easier.
Much of these wonderful building blocks are knocked down in the movie’s final act, which becomes overwrought and preachy and would rather trade in a little moment for a big one when a little one would have sufficed. Faxon and Rash seemed to have such an understanding that teenage sea change comes in a glance or a tiny phrase or a small private moment, but they go for big sweeping triumphs instead, which end up feeling tacked on or forced. I guess you can’t have a movie without some big set-pieces but The Way Way Back is best in quiet sections of humor or poignancy, of which it has plenty of both. Much of that humor is supplied by Sam Rockwell who gives a wonderfully funny performance: charming, spontaneous and desperately entertaining. His lack of professionalism and any semblance of responsibility seems to beg the question of how he is able to be a functional adult with a business but despite his laissez-faire approach, the Water Wizz is a hopping money maker, which is just as well, as part of being a cartoon hero to an impressionable boy is making sure he never sees you having to deal with financial statements.
Overall, the movie has more going for it than against it. It has an unevenness that keeps it from being fully meaningful or fully entertaining, but that unevenness seems to come with a purpose. The Way Way Back is troubled at times but is basically good once you get into it a little, which therefore makes it very much like its protagonist.
Note: There have been a number of movies lately about teens in the summer finding pseudo-families in the maladjusted workers at amusement parks. I get the feeling that, even though they are set in modern day, the stories are recollections from the writers or directors. It seems odd to me that Trent and Owen both drive 25-year-old cars and that Duncan listens to REO Speedwagon, which would presumably be what Faxon and Rash would have been listening to and driving around in. Especially considering there are a number of times in which Duncan is late getting home when he’s been hanging out with Owen and the gang and his mother and Trent question him—par for the course in 1983, less so when there are cell phones. Personal filmmaking is some of the best kind, but I don’t understand why they don’t just set it in the period it was seemingly set in anyway.