An awkward 14 year old with an extreme lack of self-esteem, Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged to a sleepy Massachusetts beach town along with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), to spend an extended summer vacation with Pam’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan does not get along with Trent who is trying to assert his authority as a father figure before he’s earned the right and Pam’s infatuation with Trent leaves Duncan feeling even more alienated and alone than he’s ever been. With no friends to hang with and a great desire to be as far away from Trent as possible, Duncan winds up absentmindedly sneaking into a run-down waterpark called Water Wizz and becomes acquainted with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s underachieving manager. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, giving him a job, a new sense of purpose, and some friendly prodding to bring him out of his shell, and as things in Duncan’s life become even more tumultuous, the life he has begun to establish at Water Wizz becomes a beacon of brightly lit hope in a world that looks increasingly dark.
There are no words to properly describe how much I loved The Way, Way Back. I am a sucker for this sort of coming-of-age indie drama but rarely does one of these movies meet all of my expectations. There’s always a side-plot that I don’t care about, a prime supporting character that I hate, a sense of melodrama that grates away at me, or some other flaw that ultimately leaves me wanting. Not so with The Way, Way Back. This is EXACTLY the movie I wanted it to be and as such, stands out as one of the most satisfying movie experiences I’ve had in quite some time. It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, an honest look at life that touches on real subjects and yet still remains a triumphant endeavor. In a summer that has been filled to the gills with overwrought action and mediocre blockbusters, The Way, Way Back is exactly the breath of fresh air that I so desperately needed.
Much of The Way, Way Back’s success is due to its superb collection of talent. Carell plays against type and again proves to be one of the most subtly commanding actors in the business. Trent is a total jerk but rather than letting his jerkdom become the character’s only personality trait (which happens all too often in a film like this), Carell paints him as a much more layered character, a guy who’s trying to be a good person even if, in the end, he can’t get out of his own way. Collette perfectly embodies the hardworking, goodhearted single mom who trusts too easily and falls into the same traps over and over again. James’ performance is perhaps less nuanced than that of his adult counterparts but his work is no less important to the atmosphere of the film and since his character is the central focus of the film, he is asked to give it much of its emotional resonance and he rings that bell quite well. The supporting actors, including Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Nat Faxon, AnnaSophia Robb, and many others, provide a rich landscape of important people in Duncan’s development and all of them work well, especially Allison Janney who is, unsurprisingly, absolutely hilarious as a desperate and borderline alcoholic neighbor.
At the end of the day, though, The Way, Way Back is Rockwell’s world and we’re all just fortunate to be around while he plies his craft. One of the most well-respected and yet criminally under-appreciated actors in the industry, Rockwell has delivered outstanding work in small roles for many years without ever being given the opportunity to completely break out. I cannot call this his best work as his turn in 2009’s Moon was unquestionably some of the best work I have EVER seen in a movie, but what he’s doing here is no less impressive and I would say much more accessible. This could have easily been a fun-but-weightless role in the hands of another actor and instead, Rockwell transforms Owen into a multi-layered, fascinating character who is an absolutely perfect match for Duncan. It is unlikely that his name will be listed among the Oscar nominees when award season comes around but I am willing to say here and now that I do not believe I will see a finer performance this year.
In the places in which the actors do not carry the load, the remainder of The Way, Way Back’s success relies on the near-flawless writing and direction of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who took home an Oscar for writing 2011’s The Descendants. The material here is lighter than that of The Descendants but perhaps the defining stroke of genius is simply allowing the film to be less weighty. That is to say, too often in this sort of coming-of-age drama, the film tries too hard to make the issues of one outcast boy or girl take on the weight of the world and the film ends up drowning in the melodrama. Here, though, we remain tied to the micro rather than expanding to the macro and as such, you can really and truly become invested and engrossed in Duncan’s life. You feel for this kid, you hurt when he hurts, you cheer when he has even a modicum of success, and you root desperately for him to break out of his shell once and for all. It's not unique ground that we're covering here but it is the way in which the film touches on that ground that makes it such a treat. What sets The Way, Way Back apart is its joyous outlook on life that prevents it from getting bogged down in the darker edges of its story. The film touches on real, genuinely difficult issues and yet the tone manages to remain gloriously and remarkably uplifting, which is a feat in and of itself. And if all of that isn’t enough for you, the soundtrack is immaculate and might just be worth the price of admission in and of itself. This is a fabulous film, EASILY the best movie I’ve seen this summer, and one that I plan on watching many times over. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for a bit of language, innuendo, and drug use)