A Strange Review: The Way, Way Back

Way Way BackThis could have been called Duncan’s No-Good, So-Good Summer, but that would have drained the angst out of it.

As the film begins, Duncan (Liam James), our object of sympathetic interest, is seated in the backseat of a minivan, only facing away from the front windshield, so we see him staring at us and the backs of the heads of his mother, Pam, played by Toni Collette, and the driver, her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). We also see the flip-flopped feet of Carell’s daughter, who is spazzed out between the seats.

“On a scale of one to ten, what are you?” Trent asks Duncan as they drive along. A stupid question that the boy wisely chooses not to answer. “I think you’re a three,” Trent says. Duncan could rate higher, of course, if he only tried harder. And Trent is a numbers and standards kind of guy. He has a very keen understanding of how things are supposed to go. He represents the law. And we all know what the law is good for.

As this modern almost family arrives at the beach house where they will be staying for the summer, we are greeted by Betty (Allison Janney), who has a drinking and guy problem; her  attractive and detached daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb); and her lazy-eyed son Peter (River Alexander), who likes playing with Star Wars action figures, even to the point of having Luke and Leia “get it on.”

Dad is long gone, as you might expect.

We also have Joan (Amanda Peet), an attractive outgoing gal whose character is as thin as a runway model and as empty as said model’s transverse colon.

Needless to say, the sullen, pale Duncan would rather be anywhere but at the beach with this collection of dysfunctionals. In fact, he’d love to be with his dad, who has a new girlfriend (of course) and who’s trying to start a new life out in California, and, well, he just had too much on his plate to handle a sullen, pale adolescent boy too.

The only kids Duncan’s age are Trent’s daughter from another marriage, Steph (Zoe Levin), a snooty, snotty, stuck-up, follow-the-crowd creep, and One-Eyed Peter, who’s OK, if a little too brash for someone who stands all of four feet tall and weighs about 80 pounds. And there’s Betty’s daughter Susanna, who seems as miserable as Duncan is.She at least engages him in genuine conversation, exchanges that reveal his inadequacies as a raconteur.

What the hell is Duncan going to do to keep himself from going mad, what with the girls’ clique and bossy Mom boyfriend and tipsy Betty pushing her eye-patched son after him so they’ll bond? Well, along comes Grace, played by Sam Rockwell. Not his name in the film, mind. His name in the film is Owen. But you’ll get the picture as I add a few more lines. Rockwell works at the water park that is attached to the beach. He’s a big personality who gives all the kids made-up names and throws his weight around only to pull it back before anyone gets their eye poked out. He’s loud, he’s lawless, but he also loves—specifically Caitlin, played by Maya Rudolph. His problem is that the ease with which he floats through life bespeaks more lawlessness than centrifugal favor, and he risks losing the object of his affection if he doesn’t get serious about the purpose of his carefree existence: to be free to care for others.

Needless to say, Owen takes young Duncan under his wing, gives him a job at the water park, which no one in his family unit knows about; the boy is simply gone for hours and hours at a time, to the unending annoyance of Trent. Duncan soon learns to ogle young bikinied ladies on the sly, break dance (or the modern equivalent), play pranks, and smile. Yes, smile. Owen proves the liberating force Duncan has been craving—a model of manly joy. Another dad.

And certainly preferable to Trent, who appears to be having it off with Joan behind Pam’s back. Isn’t that always the way with legalists? Duncan catches on and calls him out in front of the gang. He’s simply tired of his mother refusing to acknowledge what she already suspects out of fear of being alone. How much abuse and neglect is endured out of a fear of being alone? Out of a need to follow the wrong path simply to be on one?

But the key to appreciating what this film has to offer occurs toward the very end of our story, when Duncan, sitting in the minivan again, being dragged home to more of the same emptiness, when all he wants is to stay at the water park forever, can’t take it anymore and bolts out of the car, back to his pal and mentor Owen. Together the two of them throw all caution to the wind and break a water-park record—rendering the audience its feel-good moment. But the real climax comes when Trent, pissed as all get-out, comes marching into the park to drag Duncan back to the car. The law has found the boy. But grace intervenes, with Owen literally standing between the boy and the rage of the wounded pride of the man with the scale of one to ten. “Yeah, I’m with three,” Owen says. Early in the film, Stockwell cracks a joke about his hanging out with Jesus that I thought in bad taste—until I realized we were being set up for an image of what true mediation is. I don’t want to make too much of this. It’s perhaps more than the filmmakers intended. But it’s a lovely little image.

Sam Rockwell steals this film and is a pleasure to watch. Yet, no masterpiece this. It telegraphs its narrative punches, and like so many American films, Hollywood or independent, it’s uneasy with the kind of sweet ambiguity that added depth to, say, The 400 Blows. One of the problems is the deficiencies of Carell’s character. Which is to say, the writing of his character. There’s little to grasp, and so you have no idea whether he’s redeemable, whether he could learn something from this family dynamic—or whether he’s just a real jerk. He does end up apologizing to Pam, persuading her to cut the vacation short and head on home. He’s no Dwight Hansen in A Boy’s Life, a power mad and abusive monster. He just has all these rules about how things are supposed to go—including a simple game of Candyland. Yet he seems incapable of living by them himself. It’s unclear whether he’s a genuine hypocrite or just weak, someone who could be reconciled to his fractious family with some genuine unmerited love. There’s just nothing to go on.

Toni Collette’s mother character has more to offer us by way of real growth, as when she experiences the epiphany about her son’s true joy: working at the water park.

I recommend you take in this little summer trifle if it comes around, for what good it has to offer. Although when all is said and done, I still prefer The Flamingo Kid.

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5 thoughts on “A Strange Review: The Way, Way Back

  1. Sounds like Carell is still playing Michael Scott…?
    Haven’t seen this, but in The Office, I could never decide what to think about his character. His character was so inconsistent and all over the place that he seemed the least human to me. Oftentimes he’d act like completely different people in a single scene.

    • Scott’s problem was that he always tried too hard to be liked, that he couldn’t understand that his colleagues were NOT his family. He invested too much of himself in a job. Here Trent doesn’t seem to be investing enough. Or something. Again, who knows? The character was so poorly written.

  2. I haven’t seen The Flamingo Kid, have to check it out. The Way, Way Back had quite an impact on me, perhaps more than the film’s intrinsic merit. I thought almost all of the film was thinly written. However, Duncan’s situation was truly heart-tugging and the film was at its best in just collecting a dysfunctional family/community where there are no real adults – no “whole” adults – and showing how soul-killing the emptiness is. I watched it thinking, this is the life of so many children/adolescents caught in divorce/cohabitation/etc. And it’s not liberated, it’s not tolerant, it’s misery.

    I thought Carell was excellent, the right kind of “villain” for him – calculating every little poke, eyeing Duncan in the rear view mirror for signs of vulnerability. He’s not a big, tough, bad guy; he’s a little, petty bad guy. He undermines Duncan, making it easier to establish himself as an authority. It showed how truly vicious one can be while still being, essentially, petty. I suppose in the abstract the character is redeemable, but I think we’re meant to understand that he’s not right for Duncan & his Mom.

    I agree Sam Rockwell steals the film – that’s what he does – but I thought the film was most wanting in sketching out this character. He’s a guy who owns a water park whose real vocation is saving lost boys. Okay. But, as an example, I didn’t think the initial encounter between Owen and Duncan was of sufficient moment that Owen would remember or single out Duncan when he shows up at the water park and, in general, the bonding between them happened a bit too easily – almost like the film was saying, ‘you know how this next part goes.’ I get the idea and I like the idea, just thought the film didn’t quite do the work necessary to establish this relationship – just kind of assumed it.

    I did enjoy the relationship between Owen and Maya Rudolph (whatever the character’s name was) and I’ve got to say, part of what I enjoyed was that Maya is attractive, but not a great beauty.

    • Interesting comment about the instant bonding. I think that criticism could be applied to far too many other films as well.

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