The Way Way Back
Mud, The Kings of Summer, the final third of The Place Beyond the Pines: This is the season of coming-of-age stories. What sets each one apart is the ability to capture a moment, to portray real life as it actually occurs in all its raw unrelenting confusion. Now we have The Way Way Back and it possibly bests them all. 14-year-old Duncan is on his way to a Cape Cod beach resort with his mom Pam and her boyfriend Trent and Trent’s daughter Steph. We immediately feel ill at ease with a rude exchange during the car ride up between dictatorial Trent and shy Duncan who lacks confidence. Duncan rates himself a six on a scale from 1 to 10. “I think you’re a three,” says the overbearing Trent. But Duncan is soon to embark on an odyssey of sorts. A journey in which he will come to terms with who he is. He’ll confront his own insecurities through the guidance of one idiosyncratic manager at the Water Wizz theme park near the summer home where he’s staying. I seriously thought that name was a pun but apparently there really is a water park with that moniker in Massachusetts.
The Way Way Back is one of the best ensemble casts of 2013. Let’s start with Liam James as Duncan. The adolescent actor doesn’t appear to be fabricating a part. He IS that awkward teen, superbly conveyed through gestures, facial expressions and silence. He is pathetic and likeable at once. Duncan is in direct opposition to his mother’s boyfriend played by Steve Carell. Carell has portrayed the embarrassing buffoon before, but I’d be hard pressed to name a time where he came across as such an unlikable jerk. Their scenes together are a master class of controlled rage as Duncan bites his tongue amidst exchanges that will make you want to sock Steve Carell in the face. Toni Collette is Pam, Duncan’s compassionate, but somewhat naïve mother in love with this inconsiderate man.
The supporting parts are equally revelatory. Blossoming actress AnnaSophia Robb is the girl next door that is anything but a cliché. A pretty blonde beauty, she’s the spitting image of Virginia Madsen 3 decades ago. Surprisingly supportive she takes an unexpected liking to gawky Duncan. Allison Janney in a riveting portrayal, is Betty, her boozy fun loving mom. She absolutely commands the screen with her nonstop inappropriate remarks that seizes the center of attention whenever she is talking. And last but certainly not least is Sam Rockwell as Owen, the employee who hires Duncan at the water park and becomes sort of a mentor to him. He’s treats Duncan like an adult. Based in part on Bill Murray in Meatballs, he’s fast, loose and funny. The role takes advantage of his strengths and exploits them. We even get to see him dance again. Rockwell has always been a favorite of mine, but I dare say this might be the most exhilarating performance I’ve ever seen him give.
I know it’s only July, but is it too early to start talking Academy Awards? The Way Way Back enchants not with action, or special effects. It captivates because it concerns people, authentic people who yearn, hurt, care, and love. The cast is a flawless assemblage of talent, with several noteworthy performances. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are now officially a force to be reckoned with in the world of writers. I thought their screenplay for The Descendents was pretty wonderful. There are similarities, but nothing prepared me for this. They have an admirable understanding how to fashion a riveting story from beginning to end. Perhaps their experiences growing up were similar to Duncan’s. They have captured his adolescence brilliantly. You’ll laugh, cry and cheer at Duncan’s awkward trek. Here they write and make their directorial debut as well. Not only are they exemplary behind the camera, but they even manage to play quirky minor roles. The Way Way Back is a tale about grown ups and children who sometimes assume the manner of the other. It also exemplifies how sometimes just the simple encouragement from a sympathetic adult is all a child needs to thrive. Now who doesn’t like to see that?