Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than just a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

If you’ve seen The Way, Way Back, I’m sure you’d feel it should be described as a ‘summer movie’ because it’s not only released in the summer but is set in the summer too. But it’s not your typical ‘summer movie’ as it doesn’t fit how we interpret the term ‘summer movie.’ Nevertheless it is worth seeing.

We meet Duncan: a socially-withdrawn 14 year-old heading to upstate New York for the summer with his mother Pam, her boyfriend Trent and his daughter Steph. Trent is quite overbearing on Duncan chastising him about his shyness which doesn’t help at all. It’s obvious Duncan is not looking forward to this trip, especially since he wants to spend time with his father. At the beach house, the family meet up with Trent’s friend, the free-spirited Betty and her family including sullen teen daughter Susanna and young son Peter who Betty often chastises about his ‘lazy eye.’ Betty wants Duncan to be a play friend for Peter but Duncan is disinterested. He’s more interested in daughter Susanna but doesn’t know how to talk to her. The place is best describes by Susanna as ‘spring break for adults.’ Over at the beach house, Trent is the life of the party especially to his long-time friends Betty, Kip and Joan. That makes Duncan feel even more alone.

One day Duncan goes biking to the town on Steph’s girlie bike from years ago. He notices a waterslide park: The Water Wizz. Over there he meets the middle-aged man whom one day earlier was playing PacMan at the gas stop and wanted Duncan to keep up the high score. His name is Owen, a carefree easy-going personality, and he runs the Water Wizz. Here he shows Duncan about the Water Wizz with the employees and doing business, teaching him the ‘legend’ of the park, and even introducing a trio of boys he befriends. He also gets Roddy to show him how he sets up the female sliders to slide.

The experience gets Duncan coming back to the Water Wizz day after day and he even gets a job there. First duty was to stop a breakdancer from stealing the crowd. The breakdancer agrees as long as Duncan shows his stuff. Duncan agrees and he would be known at ‘Pop-N-Lock.’ Soon he learns from Owen that one doesn’t just simply work at the Water Wizz but the workers all share a common bond with each other. Meanwhile people back at the resort are wondering about Duncan and why he’s gone biking off so often, including Susanna who’s slowly developing an interest in him. Susanna actually follows Duncan one day, determined to find out what he’s up to. There she’s introduced to the Water Wizz and the two have fun together including Duncan teaching her the ‘legend’ of the park.

However while things are getting better for Duncan at the Water Wizz, things are getting worse for him and his family at the beach house. Trent and Betty are too carefree in their partying and Kip is oblivious to the whole thing. Meanwhile Trent is undecided about rekindling romantic interests with Joan who wants him back. Little do they know Duncan saw the whole thing. It’s at a resort party Trent is hosting at the house where Duncan impulsively blurts out to Trent that he knows what’s going on right for all to hear. The party’s over for the family. It gets to the point they all can’t have a normal dinner together or play a game on a rainy day without some friction. It bears hardest not only on Duncan but on Pam too as she knows the relationship will be over.

Duncan however finds someone to lean on in Owen. Owen reminds him Trent doesn’t know Duncan and how great of a kid he is and it’s more of Trent’s problem. He even offers to cheer him up by inviting him to Lewis’ good-bye party. Duncan comes with Peter and they all not only have a good time but Peter develops a new confidence about his lazy eye. Unfortunately the situation between Pam and Trent has gotten to the point that the ‘family’ has to leave the beach house and return home. This especially shocks Duncan since the people of the Water Wizz make him feel like a somebody although his job is still a secret to his ‘family.’ Yes, it is a goodbye to the town but not without one last ‘moment’ with Susanna and a golden last-hurrah at the Water Wizz that you will have to see for yourself.

The film’s movie poster advertises coming from the studio that brought out Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. The movie does kind of have the same feel as the two previous movies. Unlike the previous two, this film doesn’t seem to have much of a theme or a message to it. But like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, it shows adults to be the messy ones or the ones who don’t have their head on straight. Also like those two movies, it shows that sometimes the kids or teens are the ones who deal with the situation best despite their own flaws. You could tell with the stupidities of Betty getting drunk constantly and Trent’s cheating that these adults don’t have their head on right. Even the adults’ treatment of the children like Betty getting on Peter’s case about his lazy eye and Trent’s judgment and belittling of Duncan are examples of their stupidity. While Duncan may be sky and Susanna may be unhappy, they’re the ones that actually end up being the smarter ones in the end. Another unique thing about the film is that it showed the career-oriented adults to be the ones playing games and doing stupid things that hurt those that matter most to them while the workers at the Water Wizz are the ones that most have it together. Duncan should be fortunate to have bumped into the park by chance. It was the best thing for him.

This is yet another coming-of-age story but it’s not yet another. Sure the coming-of-age story has been done at great frequency and some would say this story isn’t all that original. What makes this coming-of-age story work is through the character of Duncan. Everyone who’s been through the high school years knows a teen boy that is very quiet and is an anti-social loner. Duncan carries those traits in a comical way without poking too much fun at shy teen boys. But what’s also unique about Duncan is that he makes his anger and frustrations present. The film succeeds in getting us to feel for Duncan and wanting him to find his place despite Trent’s overbearingness. We first think of Owen and the gang at the Water Wizz as overgrown idiots who should get a real job but we soon see them as the friends Duncan needed during his vacation. That’s the movie’s appeal: the young protagonist and the people that change his life.

Without a doubt, young Canadian actor Liam James was the star of the film. He did an excellent job in portraying a shy anti-social boy very well both emotionally and physically. Great to see a young actor like him do an excellent lead amongst an ensemble cast of established actors. Steve Carell was also good playing a person you just wanted to hate. Toni Collette didn’t have that showy of a role but she played it very honestly and added to the story. Sam Rockwell was great in playing a free-spirited middle-aged man. Great character acting also came from Alison Janney and Rob Corddry. AnnaSophia Robb was also very good in playing a young teen girl. Very different from the ‘sweet’ roles she’s been known to play. Also fun to see the writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in roles in this film. Nat and Jim were writers who teamed up with Alexander Payne for The Descendants. This movie is a great way to show they can hold their own and hold it well. The movie also included a great mix of music both past and current.

Overall The Way, Way Back is a great summer film if you want to get away from your typical summer movie fare. This is a story you’ll really enjoy. Also movie fans should go see it if they want to get off the beaten path.

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2 responses

  1. Thanks for this review, I am looking forward to seeing this!

  2. Nice review Jon. It’s so safe and conventional, you almost want to hate it. However, you can’t because the script and cast is so lovely and charming to watch.

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