“On a scale of one to ten, what do you think you are?”
Childhood summers are some of the best memories I have. Wake up when you can’t sleep any longer, fill the day with exactly what you want to do. They were freeing. The Way Way Back succeeds because it pulls those liberating moments of adolescence into one film. Along with that comes being forced to hangout with other kids, endure adult dinner parties, develop a crush on a beautiful older girl. Those bits of time don’t make you grow up, but they do help shape both your self-awareness and self-esteem. In this case, we take the journey with a quiet, slouched, and socially awkward teenage boy as he discovers who he really is.
Duncan (newcomer Liam James) is a 14 year old going on summer vacation to Cape Cod with his mother. Unfortunately for him, it’s with her boyfriend and his daughter. The opening scene finds the two women sound asleep as the boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), asks Duncan to rate himself. He says 6, not wanting to assess himself too highly. And then comes the ice cold remark from Trent…”I think you’re a 3.” It’s said with complete indifference and sets the stage for their relationship. We see this man’s true character. Carrell is great in the role as the shady boyfriend that is the antithesis of his normal typecast. There are moments when he’s rightfully stern and fatherly, but his tone is never respectful. You can tell he’s not a good guy, even if he has temporarily wooed Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette).
The film is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, previous Oscar winners for their work on the screenplay The Descendants. The direction is fairly sublime and doesn’t take control of the narrative. That’s not to say that it isn’t well made, it’s just more of a production that explores the characters and settings without being excessively intrusive. Their screenplay is what really stands out. It’s full of striking dialogue and cringeworthy scenes. Great movies introduce us to wholly original and unique characters. You should be able to read the script without any character names and still have a strong sense of who is talking. And this film does that exceptionally well. Interviews with the pair explain that it was a bit of a passion project for them, and was inspired by Rash having a similar “scale of one to ten” conversation with his stepfather when he was 14. It feels real because it once was real, and it’s brutally honest because someone once was brutally honest with the writers.
Duncan spends his first days of vacation moping about. He’d rather be with his Dad who is out settling into a new life without him in California. Alas, he’s stuck in the miserable beach house. The adults spend the days (and nights) getting drunk. It’s like a college spring break for grown ups. Naturally he embarrasses himself in front of Susanna, the pretty girl next door. That’s when he literally finds his vehicle to a new chapter in his story, even if it comes in the form of a pink bike with streamers sitting in the shed. Duncan rides with no particular place in mind, just wanting to escape his current situation. There’s a brief but important encounter with a ragtag group of employees from the local water park. They’re at a pizza joint and the park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) plays Pac-Man while Duncan discreetly observes. Owen leaves mid game and tells Duncan to finish the game by ignoring the game’s patterns he knows so well and make his own path. The writing is a bit on the nose, but it helps us know where this story is going to go.
Sam Rockwell is an incredibly underrated actor. His performance as man child Owen sends the movie to an entirely different level. Duncan falls under the protection of Owen’s wing after he offers the kid a part-time job at the water park for the summer. It’s there that Duncan finds himself. He rides that pink bike to a place he can call his own. The people there welcome him with open arms and teach him how to embrace the world around him. He learns to be confident and carries a smirk on his face. It’s not that he becomes arrogant, but rather just a kid that is happy to finally feel happy. This all happens while the song “I Got a New Sensation” plays, displaying Duncan’s inner elation. Things seem to be going up.
However, the unavoidable plunge comes swiftly. The story follows a natural course from there on out. There’s a rift between Pam and Trent, truths are uncovered, and Duncan feels the heartbreak of being denied a kiss by the girl of his dreams. He continues to go to the water park, even on his days off, because it’s the only place that he feels wanted. Towards the end we get a glimpse of why Owen behaves the way he does, and we learn his reasoning for looking after Duncan. Their friendship is a peculiar pairing, but they both find comfort in nurturing the other and helping develop their own unique flaws.
It’s common for people to run back to either a person, place, or thing that gives them reassurance in the form of a personal sanctuary. For Duncan, it’s all three. Owen, the water park, and being the first person to pass another rider on Devil’s Peak slide. It’s a great metaphor to show the character return to that trio and physically, as well as emotionally, separate himself from them. He finally becomes his own person. The movie goes on to end where it began, with the foursome, now undoubtedly halved, in the car leaving early to go home. This is the kind of movie you can watch on any occasion. It’s hilarious, poignant, and sentimental. The Way Way Back is a film about finding yourself, and how you can do it at any age. You just have to be open to the change.
“There’s a whole world out there for you Duncan. Don’t settle. Not yet.”
Rating: 4 out of 5