The Way Way Back (2013)
7/10 Long, Hot Summers
Eerily familiar, and I mean that in a good way.
The Way Way Back is about shy, awkward teen who begrudgingly spends the summer on the shore with his mom, her boyfriend and his mom’s boyfriend’s teenage daughter. Since his mom’s too preoccupied with her boyfriend, the boyfriend’s a total asshole and the boyfriend’s daughter treats the kid like a leper, the summer gets off to a pretty shitty start. Rather than endure the company he came with, he spends his days doing nothing at the local water park. Not swimming, no sliding, just nothing whatsoever. After a while, this kid’s depressing behavior catches the attention of a park employee. Rather than give him the boot, he takes the kid under his wing and gives him a job to stay busy. Before long, the kid builds some confidence and even cozies up to the girl next door. Given the circumstances, things are turning up. On the other hand, mom’s boyfriend’s still a dillweed and the summer’s just begun.
So for the first 15 years of my life, I was an only child. Towards the middle, my folks had split up; towards the end, they were getting remarried. Translation: a good chunk of those 15 years was spent in the backseat with my Discman being dragged to various gatherings where I didn’t know anyone. What can I say, I had an angsty reputation to uphold and I’m truly making it sound more tragic than it was. Hell, I got to broaden my musical horizons and got some tip-top step-parents in the process. Looking back, my memories are fond ones, but back in the day, I was totally Duncan at my age.
For all the coming-of-agers that are out there, I can’t remember the last time that revolved around a kid like this. He’s terrified of girls, carries himself like a mortician’s assistant and is constantly taking shit without ever giving it back. If I had known Duncan when I was in high school, I’m thinking we would have gotten along famously. This kid a kindred spirit, the kind of kid who fakes sick to play video games. Oh yes, he’s an awfully easy kid to identify with, not just because of how he acts, but because of how he doesn’t.
If there’s one big difference between Duncan and I, it’s that the people in my life at 14-years-old were folks I actively looked up to. On a scale of 1 to 10, they didn’t take the initiative to deem me a 3 or tell me to hit the bricks because they needed to knock boots. Hell of a childhood now that I think about it, but unfortunately for Duncan, these are exactly the people he’s dealing with. Which leads me to Steve Carell.
If there’s one redeeming quality about Duncan’s mom’s boyfriend it’s that he’s played by the most likable guy on the planet. Not only is it nice to see him branch out for the first time since Little Miss Sunshine, but if it were anyone else in the role as Trent, one wouldn’t hesitate to write the guy off. For god’s sake, the man’s name is Trent. Red flags up the yin-yang, yo. And right off the bat, he’s borderline deplorable, the kind of guy that would make a kid like Duncan get real into Nine Inch Nails. But since he’s Steve Carell, I kept on giving him the benefit of the doubt. After all, it seems like he’s at least trying to have a relationship with the kid, not like he’s hiding him with his belt or anything. Maybe all this “constructive criticism” of his is just his idea of tough love?
It’s a clever facade indeed, one that I imagine wouldn’t be possible without Carell’s involvement, and it’s really too bad that it doesn’t hold up. The thing about the characters in this movie is that most of them have a shtick. The next-door neighbor always has a drink in hand and might as well be a former Rockette from the way she parades around and talks your ear off. Duncan’s mentor at the water park is like a long-winded version of Bill Murray from Meatballs. Duncan’s mom is so damn weak it’ll break your little heart. Kills ya’ to see someone settle for the love they think they deserve. But since the neighbor’s played by Allison Janney and the mentor’s played by Sam Rockwell, it’s easy enough to overlook. As for Toni Collette as the mom, she ain’t too shabby either.
Nonetheless, there are times when it gets to be a bit much. If every movie had Sam Rockwell in it, I wouldn’t leave the damn theater, but the dude is forced to showboat a few times too many. And while Trent’s admittedly a dick, there eventually comes a point where he jumps the shark with his outrageously dickish behavior. In one fell swoop, he goes from the kind of jerk that you actively avoid to a wandering stranger who’d tell your kids that Santa’s a goddamn fake. On Christmas. Then he’d slap them for crying. Then he’d slap you. What a guy.
In contrast to how genuine Duncan comes off, it’s these kinds of developments that make The Way Way Back seem more like a movie and less like life at times. And for a while there, poor Duncan was in the same boat.
As you likely guessed immediately, Duncan begins to grow as the summer goes on. He starts talking to girls, he learns how to breakdance, he even speaks his mind when things have to be said. It’s a beautiful thing, really…except for all those times he keeps biting his damn tongue. As the kid continued to blossom, I was hoping he’d grown to a point where he’d gone full Lester Burnham on us and wouldn’t think twice to tell Trent to eff off. But Trent just keeps on cutting the kid down and Duncan just keeps bottling it up. Again, Duncan does grow, Duncan’s a different kid, but I still had this urge to just shake him by the shoulders.
It was frustrating, man. I wanted him to be Gordie Lachance; not the Lachance who lets Ace steal his hat, but the kid who saves Chambers by whipping out a gun. But then I started thinking of what I was like as a teenager and what I would have done in Duncan’s shoes.
As much as I’d like to say that mine was a hard-knock life, that I always packed heat and never took crap from anyone, the truth is that I was always biting my tongue. Of course I wanted to see him go off, of course it sucks to see him stay silent, but as much of a bummer as it is to admit, I would have done the exact same thing. When I was 14 and going through the motions, it was easier to be adaptable than vocally inflexible. Making waves only made matters worse, or so I had convinced myself. Took me a while to grow out of that mindset, but damn, what a rude reminder that I ever bought into it in the first place.
With that said, I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there who can relate to Duncan and his summer at the shore. By and large, his rites of passage aren’t all that new as far as coming-of-agers go, but we’ve all been there before and it certainly wasn’t easy. It’s weird to me that Duncan feels like such a breath of fresh air considering movies like these are a dime a dozen, yet he totally is and the resemblance is striking. And since we’re on the subject, big ups to Liam James for bringing him to life. Not only looks the part but he plays the part well.
But aside from all the heartfelt stuff, The Way Way Back is quite the crowd-pleaser that’s also a whole lot funnier than I was expecting it to be. An easy recommendation straight across the board, a gosh darn guarantee if you’ve lived the life of Duncan. Hopefully time will be kind to this one. We could use more Duncans in this industry.