Mark Reviews Movies

The Way, Way Back


2 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Cast: Liam James, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug content)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 7/5/13 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 4, 2013

The bookend images of The Way Way Back are of rebellion. In them, a teenage boy sits in the cargo area—the way, way back—of his mother's boyfriend's station wagon. It's his choice to sit there, away from the other occupants of the car—not even looking in their direction and instead watching the road behind him. Both times, he's looking back with longing for what he's leaving behind, and the only difference between the two shots, really, is his attitude about where he's going—both in terms of location and as a person.

When we first meet this boy of 14, he's meek and timid. Duncan (Liam James) is miserable and doesn't bother hiding it from Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend of his mother Pam (Toni Collette), who's sleeping in the passenger seat. Duncan tries to talk to the kid, but it's no use.

What does Duncan think of himself, Trent asks as they drive to his beach house for a summer vacation. He wants the answer to be specific—on a scale of one to 10. There's something odd about the way he keeps pressing the teenager to respond. It's something other than an attempt to bond; it's an interrogation.

We, immediately thrown into this uncomfortable scene, are also immediately meant to identify with Duncan. There are two basic compositions throughout the course of the scene: the first a straight on shot of Duncan looking as if this is the last place he wants to be and the other an almost eerie shot of Trent's eyes in the rearview mirror. If the point isn't clear enough, Trent decides to answer his question for his girlfriend's son and labels him a "three." One might think it's tough love (He at least backs up the insult with some constructive criticism—with the emphasis on the "criticism" part), but those spooky eyes say it all.

Trent is, of course, right. He simply doesn't have a diplomatic way of putting things, although that's only one of many of his flaws that come to light over the course of this vacation. Duncan is a loner and socially awkward. He needs to come out of his shell, but Trent simply isn't the type of personality from whom the teen will take advice.

Perhaps that's being too generous of the man. The screenplay, written by directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, certainly doesn't care too much for him. Every scene he's in—whether he's laying down the rules (sometimes, it seems, only to embarrass Duncan, like when he forces him to wear a life jacket on a boat), revealing himself to be a cheating cad that doesn't deserve the sweet Pam, or announcing to Duncan in front of a group of people that the boy's father doesn't want anything to do with him anymore—only serves to confirm Duncan's ill will toward him. It undercuts Duncan's growth because he isn't actually growing. He's simply learning information that makes it more acceptable for him to feel the way he already feels.

Enter Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a local water park who meets Duncan over a video game at a restaurant. Duncan, by the way, rides around town on Trent's daughter's (Zoe Levin) pink childhood bicycle, which is the kind of decision that doesn't exactly make him look cool. The movie has a strange attitude toward Duncan. It can't decide if we're to laugh at how awkward he is (wearing jeans a button-up shirt to the beach while trying not to stare at the girls in bikinis, including Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the obligatory object of his affection who exists solely to be a measuring tool of how much more self-assured he becomes) or simply commiserate with how miserable he is because of that tendency. There no mean-spiritedness toward him, but it is odd.

Anyway, Owen hires Duncan to work at the park and takes the kid under his wing, introducing him to another employee who has mastered the way to ogle bikini-clad girls as they wait to go down the water slide (without making it seem that way) and showing him that he takes things too seriously by injecting sarcasm into everything. Rockwell, that character of a character actor, is the movie's most appealing presence by design and in performance. There's an ease in the way he transitions from goofball to Duncan's champion—from a friend to a paternal mentor—that makes him the most well-rounded character here.

That's a major part of the movie's problem. Everyone else serves their purpose in The Way Way Back, which is simply to be there to cause Duncan grief or finally understand the kid, and that includes Duncan himself. He doesn't change as much as circumstances change around him (Any alteration of his attitude is apparently the result of dancing in front of a group of people, and a montage of a more confident Duncan soon after solidifies that). He's a passive participant in his own story, and that does not make for an especially admirable protagonist.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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