The Way, Way Back is a summertime coming-of-age dramedy that marks the directorial debut of Academy Award winning writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants). Reportedly, this film was a passion project of theirs that only the cache of an Oscar win could get off the ground. Not only did it launch, this would-be indie darling got a standing ovation at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
With that kind of pedigree, it comes as a big letdown to see how conventional it all is. This isn’t a new voice on the cinematic landscape. It’s the same familiar one we’ve heard for decades, but without the value of any singular perspective (like we got from, say, John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, who made careers out of reinventing the conventional). The only distinguishing characteristic of The Way, Way Back is that it doesn't have one.
To be more specific, it’s the screenplay that lacks distinction, as does the rather rote (even amateurish) directorial effort. The supporting cast makes up for much, even as they also compensate for a teenage lead who’s as bland as the story. The ensemble gives the film whatever charm it's able to conjure (a soundtrack mix of 80s hits and hipster anthems do most of the emotional heavy lifting), but unfortunately they're wading through generic plot beats.
The Way, Way Back is yet another "the summer that changed everything" story of an awkward teenage boy. Duncan (Liam James, 2012) is shy, nerdy, and saddled with angst. He's spending the summer at a beach house with his divorcée mom Pam and her boyfriend Trent (Toni Collette and Steve Carell, reteaming from Little Miss Sunshine). Duncan’s in tow against his will, although what he’d prefer is never clear (beyond the boilerplate whine "Why can’t I spend the summer with dad?"). He's so thinly drawn that the only thing he seems to enjoy is sulking.
The problem here is that we’re expected to sympathize with and even root for Duncan, not due to any specific understanding of who he is but simply because he's put-upon by everyone around him. While that does evoke situational sympathy, after awhile you don't want to be around this sad-sack any more than anyone else does. At some point he has to make an effort, too, doesn't he? In Movie World, apparently not, especially when two encouraging archetypes cross his path to serve no other purpose than to instantly befriend Duncan and help him find himself.
Those two come in the form of (wait for it) a Father Figure and Hottie-Yet-Hip Girl Next Door. The former is Owen, played by Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths) who, by virtue of his unique persona, is the film's highlight. He's cool, clever, and despite his rule-breaking swagger also has the nurturing inclination to take Duncan under his wing – plus he owns a water park at which Duncan can land a job, build some self-confidence, and find a surrogate family (via the quirky, accepting staff). Rockwell is fantastic, very entertaining, and does what the filmmakers can't: elevate an archetype to something unique.
As for the Hip Hottie Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer), she's different than the local mean girls. She's smarter, more sophisticated, intuitive, and mature. You can tell instantly by the Rolling Stones tee she wears. But her attraction to Duncan is embarrassingly forced.
She begins by reaching out, and he sulks. She reaches out some more, and he sulks some more. Inexplicably undeterred, Susanna keeps pursuing Duncan until she sees him in his element at the water park amongst his new friends, and a connection sparks (via a day-long montage; eye roll). In other words, this is a Nerd Boy-turned-Filmmaker fantasy trying to pass itself off as realism for about the umpteenth time since the 90s.
Then there's the crew Duncan's dealing with at the beach house, primarily Trent, who's a real jerk of the passive-aggressive order; his put-downs are cloaked in motivational clichés. The only point of the familial melodrama is to serve as basis for Duncan’s angst, as well as a subplot arc for his mom to move on from her co-dependent compromises in the wake of divorce. Carell and Colette are solid, and Carell plays well against type, but their characters serve a function more than anything else.
Along with Rockwell, the other breath of fresh air here is a resorting neighbor played by Allison Janney (Liberal Arts). She arrives like a gregarious whirlwind – laughing, joking, teasing, a drink never far from her hand, and always speaking her mind (including the occasional double-entendre). She's a real hoot, and a welcome spice to these rather perfunctory proceedings.
Ultimately we aren't watching characters in a story, but pawns on a narrative chessboard, moving not by motivation but simply by how, when, and where Faxon & Rash need them to be. It's all by design but to a fault, contrived rather than organic, right down to the "waterslide urban legend" build-up early on that predictably comes back around to serve as a climactic anchor.
When Descendants co-writer and director Alexander Payne hogged the mic during the Oscar speech for Best Adapted Screenplay for that film, I wondered if he was unfairly overshadowing the real talents behind its success. After all, Faxon & Rash (sounds like a TNT legal drama, doesn’t it?) had been the ones to adapt the novel into a script before Payne came onboard. But if The Way, Way Back is any indication, Payne's the reason these two are Oscar-winners.
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- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Casual drinking of wine, beer, and margaritas. Brief use of marijuana. Talk of doing drugs.
- Language/Profanity: S-word used commonly throughout. Nearly a dozen uses of the A-word, two variations of the B-word, one F-word, a middle finger, and a handful of mild profanities.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A moment of intense kissing, including a butt squeeze. Another moment of a butt grab. A woman in a bikini is ogled by men; her body seen in close-up framings. Occasional sexual innuendos, references, and double-entendres are made. The T-word for breasts is used once. The L-word for having sex is used once. The D-word slang for male genitalia is used once.
- Violence/Other: Some scuffles, but no real violence.