Review: The Way Way Back

Image from Fox Searchlight []

February 25, 2014

This hilarious and familiarly nostalgic tale documents the coming-of-age story of 14-year-old Duncan, played by Liam James, and his summer vacation with his mom Pam played by Toni Collete, her emotionally abusive new boyfriend Trent played by Steve Carrell, and Trent’s spoiled and heartless daughter who should have been named Regina George to Trent’s beach house.

Screenwriters and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash create a beautiful and fresh film through a simple script reminiscent of their award-winning film The Descendants having a baby with Little Miss Sunshine.

The movie begins with an uncomfortable exchange between Trent and Duncan, who sits in the way, way back of an old station wagon. Trent, while his daughter and girlfriend are asleep, asks Duncan what he considers himself to be on a scale of one to ten. Duncan, obviously upset at the uncomfortable questions tries not to answer, but Trent insists. Eventually, Trent calls him a “3” and you hate him the rest of the movie. Steve Carell does such a great job playing a total douche that I almost stopped watching the film.

As the car pulls in to town, the camera focuses on Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, in a sports car behind them.

The tension of the first scene ends with the awkwardness of Betty the Boozehound neighbor who invades all personal space and privacy boundaries. Janney, who plays Betty, is the only performance that can rival the brilliance of Sam Rockwell and Liam James. In her first scene, she announces a facepalm deserving comment to a the vacationers, “I’m off the wagon again, accept it and move on.” But her fantastic delivery of excellently written lines borders on improvisation as she pokes fun at herself and the rest of the cast.

The best dynamic in the movie occurs between Duncan and his friend-who-can-drive Owen, the manager of the Water Wizz Water Park, played by Sam Rockwell. Not only is Owen fascinating on a character level, but his extroversion is hilariously executed with the support of Maya Rudolph and The Dean from Community.

When Duncan first escapes the house on a pink bicycle, one can’t help but be reminded of the powerful scene in The Descendants when George Clooney runs toward the house of his wife’s lover. Running away from his problems, he finds solace in powerful mentorship-friendship with Owen after quick conversation over a game of Pac-Man.

Duncan with an introversion and shyness bordering on scoliosis rarely speaks. He is so uncomfortable with himself that the awkwardness trumps any character played by Michael Cera. It’s not that he has nothing to say, but he’s so beat down by his parent’s divorce and Steve Carrell, plus his own hormones, that he’s terrified to speak up. You can literally see his decisions on his face.

The supporting characters of Kip and Joan, friends (and more) with Trent, make an impression are memorable, though I expected more from their all-star actors Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet.

Though you should really watch the film for its characters, here’s a quick plot summary: Duncan gets his first real job unbeknownst to his mom and Trent and brief, almost-romance with Betty’s daughter Susana- a cute, older and rebellious girl-next-door, reminiscent of a Wes Anderson character, played by Anna Sophia Robb. He learns how to check out girls waiting to ride the water slide. He learns how to “dance” with the support of some of the cool waterpark teens. He learns how to stick up for himself and his mother.

It’s in RedBox. Go rent it.