The agony of adolescence and the magic of summer are both evoked with charm to spare in The Way, Way Back, a film that is a wondrous conundrum of sparkling intelligence and sneaky reality. The movie is too sharply witty to be fully realistic, yet reaches moments of such beautiful emotional resonance that we not only forgive its comic tangents, but sort of love the film even more because of them.
The Way, Way Back marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won Oscars in 2012 for co-writing The Descendants. Free now to tell their own story, they abandon the former film’s bitter cynicism and zero in on the uniquely tortured emotions of youth. Fortunately for Duncan (Liam James), the youth at the center of this story, he has some snarky and saintly guidance to help him come of age. But before you mistake that sentence for a smug criticism, stop and think — don’t we all wish we had awesome mentors to save us from our family hell and show us the way? That’s part of the beauty of the film, which nestles into the Sparkling Indie Comedy subgenre populated by titles like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. Its characters are a little bit outsized, a little bit too eloquent, but their world is fascinating, the truth of their emotions is completely identifiable, and they are so damn wonderful to watch.
We meet Duncan on his way to a summer getaway with a would-be family unit consisting of his passive mother (Toni Collette), her smirking alpha male boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his mean-girl daughter (Zoe Levin). They are spending the summer at Trent’s picturesque beach house, a notion Duncan can barely stomach. He’s the epitome of an only child from a broken home — awkward and inward, unassuming but yearning to break free. He sees that Trent is clearly an arrogant pig, but knows his mother is too lonely and submissive to see it for herself.
In Faxon and Rash’s screenplay, the tropes are clear and the themes are familiar. Duncan is the lost, misunderstood teen boy. He is surrounded by a rogues gallery of adults who just don’t get it, from his mother and Trent to Trent’s hard-partying sister, Betty (Allison Janney), and old college friends Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry). They are a couple, but it’s clear Joan was Trent’s former flame. Summer at the beach is quite aptly referred to as “spring break for adults,” since the grown-ups dabble in youth-chasing escapism while the actual youths are left to their own devices.
That’s how Duncan stumbles upon an unlikely summer job opportunity at the Water Wizz Water Park, which is an antique to put it nicely, but is nevertheless a summer hangout popular with local teens and run by The Greatest Guys Ever. Chief among them is Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner, who is lazy and unmotivated and resting on his laurels, yet he sees something in Duncan, and becomes his cool-guy advisor for the summer.
The Way, Way Back is sneaky in the way it sets up a series of conventional themes and characters but slowly twists each of them, resulting in an experience that is subtly revelatory. Duncan is a restless youth, but he doesn’t just go looking for trouble, nor does he fully emerge from his shell. Trent is a champion ass, but he isn’t merely a one-note huckster; he is troubled and weak. Betty is an over-tanned, alcohol-soaked wild woman (and Janney is one big scene short of an Oscar nomination), but she is also just a lonely, struggling mother. Owen is the slick sage who appears out of a clear blue waterpark, but he has a wealth of his own flaws to overcome. Faxon and Rash have crafted characters of wonderful nuance, and these actors bring them to hysterical and heart-breaking life. In much the same way, their story strikes a sublime balance of showy humor and subtle drama; the jokes sometimes go over-the-top, but when the laughter fades, we realize not all the problems can be solved, and life isn’t wrapped up with a bow at the end of the summer.