Comedy-drama with such trenchant realism that it comes on as a shock. The Way Way Back, which deals with comedic family dysfunction more than its coming of age scenario, smiles through the pain. It’s been written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the duo who won the screenplay Oscar for “The Descendants” two years ago. Their protagonist is 14-year old Duncan (Liam Jones), who is dressed for summer but not quite the beach when he arrives in beachside Massachusetts. I blame the mother (Toni Collette) and new boyfriend (Steve Carell) for not caring enough to buy the kid new clothes.
I am never going to forget the first scene of the movie. Pam, the mother, is asleep in the front seat. At the wheel is Trent, the boyfriend, who hollers back to Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. The question is both vague and condescending, but Trent implies that Duncan hasn’t reached a stage of self-actualization. “A six,” Duncan rates himself after being repeatedly asked. “You’re really more of a three,” Trent remarks with the sensitivity of a blunt instrument.
The adults arrive at the vacation home to get drunk and silly with other immature adults, played by the likes of Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet and Allison Janney, who tells graphic adult stories in front of other kids. Each of these figures are just self-absorbed enough to not notice Duncan’s loneliness, or even regard him. Trent, in particular, would rather insult or patronize Duncan in small passing moments than get to know him on a thoughtful level. Carell is brilliant and corrosive in this role, often he’s played narcissistic guys for laughs but this is a darker, appalling characterization.
Without such appalling parenting and mentoring, the movie wouldn’t be able to stir up its inspirational formula. Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) over a game of Pacman, and it’s obvious that we’ve been set up with a mentor and apprentice story. What’s particularly kind is that Owen seems to have hand-selected Duncan because he sees this kid is under an abnormal depression. Owen immediately gets Duncan a job under him at a water amusement park called “The Water Wizz,” where life experience begins to congeal. Duncan comes to say, quite poignantly, that this job is the only place where he feels wanted.
Duncan is lucky enough to get a girlfriend interest, and yet she makes just enough sense to believably belong in the story. She is wonderfully played by AnnaSophia Robb, the kind of girl who looks like she’s actually read a bookcase full of literature and yet is pretty all the same. She’s not quite ready for a boyfriend, and surely, she’s more mature than Duncan who comes off as the younger brother mold. I rooted for Duncan to kiss her, but what I really wanted from Duncan, and out of “The Way Way Back” was for Duncan to show up the adults. I wasn’t disappointed. Also, to hear the great Sam Rockwell run his mouth, and banter with Maya Rudolph as another park employee, is a consummate pleasure. I occasionally felt sad, then bittersweet, and even felt love for this movie a few times throughout.
103 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
TEEN DRAMEDY / LIFE LESSONS / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Film Cousins: “Meatballs” (1979); “Adventureland” (2009); “The Descendants” (2011); “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012).