The Way, Way Back
The "coming-of-age" story is coming back in a big way. With last year's "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and the upcoming "The Spectacular Now," teenagers are being treated like human beings again and not vapid horny plot devices.
The trend continues with "The Way, Way Back." Starring Steve Carell and Toni Collette, the film is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, two comedic actors who previously won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for their script for "The Descendants." Here, they stretch their writing chops to focus on fourteen-year old Duncan (Liam James), a closed-off introvert from a broken family who has to contend with his mother Pam's (Collette) new boyfriend Trent (Carell.)
Trent is a patronizing, emotionally abusive jerk who has somehow pulled the wool over Pam's eyes, and who constantly asserts his "authority" over Duncan by asking hurtful questions like, "If you were to rate yourself on a scale of 1-10, what would you give yourself?" When Duncan reluctantly responds a "6," Trent counters with, "I'd give you a 3." It's a heart-wrenching moment and starts the film off with a clear view inside Trent's head -- as well as Duncan's.
Duncan, Trent, his mother, and Trent's teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) are on their way to a beach house for a summer vacation. There, they join Trent's friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), as well as Betty (Allison Janney), Trent's boozy and outspoken summertime neighbor. Betty, in turn, has two kids: teenage Susanna (Anna Sophia Robb) and the younger Peter (River Alexander). But that's not all: Duncan soon meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who "manages" the local waterpark while, the distant object of Owen's affection Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), works with him. Duncan and Owen become buddies, and when Owen sees that Duncan has some social awkwardness, he takes him under his wing and gives him a job at the park. This helps Duncan come out of his shell and start dealing with things back home.
Meanwhile, Pam is so entranced by Trent that she barely sees that Duncan is being treated poorly. She's so damaged that she'd rather allow Trent's behavior so she can be with someone, then tell him to take a hike and be on her own. Meanwhile, Duncan is falling for Susanna, with whom he realizes he has more in common than he thought. All of the relationships with which he comes in contact teach him something important and allow for him to change and grow. It's a simple conceit, but it's handled lovingly by Faxon and Rash (who, incidentally, play two workers at the waterpark, as well).
The first half hour or so of the film is a little off-putting. The opening scene alone sets the stage for Trent and Duncan's dynamic, and it's so unsettling it's suspect if you really want to put yourself through more. Janney is hilarious as the neighbor, but she's such a loud mouth you worry she'll grow tiresome. When Kip and Joan show up, the obnoxiousness gets tangible. Luckily, this is where the film shifts and the heart of the story kicks in. Duncan starts to take things into his own hands, and he begins to get the respect he deserves. His evolution is joyful to watch because you really do want him to blossom. Rockwell plays a variation on his usual wisecracking slacker routine, but it works. He also gives the character some extra heart and depth and that makes the role shine on screen. Collette is always good, and here the damage that she's suffered keeps bleeding through her smiling exterior, allowing us to feel empathy even when she makes the wrong choices. Relative newcomer James fills Duncan with that concave slouch and pained frustration that many loner kids have.
But it is Carell who is the real stunner here. Generally, Carell is the adorable clown that is hilarious and sweet even when he plays a jackass ("The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," for example). Here, he creates such an unlikable yet recognizable character, that his speech, tone, and dialogue will ring true for many people. That alone can be incredibly repulsive, but it's the mark of a great role. He disappears inside of Trent and emerges a character so far away from what we're used to that we forget he is Carell and only see Trent. It's sort of brilliant.
Faxon and Rash direct their film with a perfect simplicity It's not flashy or over-edited. They allow their characters to live and breathe and, at 103 minutes, the story isn't rushed. They give each member of the large ensemble his or her moment and leaves us satisfied even when the ending isn't totally closed-ended. What it does do is give us a reason for the cryptic title: It's subtle, but a perfect bookend to a charming and heartfelt film.