' ' Cinema Romantico: The Way, Way Back

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Way, Way Back

“The Way, Way Back” fits squarely in the ever-expanding Coming-of-Age genre and, yet, despite painting in broad strokes and fulfilling all the accustomed beats, it skillfully eclipses its own been-there, done-that nature and hones in on something truer. The adults meant as trail guides for our youthful protagonist are niftily shown to have never really come of age themselves. “It’s spring break for adults,” someone says, but the movie is never that simple. Or stupid. So often when characters Come-of-Age it is presented as a giant leap, but in this case it is rightfully shown as one small step.

Duncan (Liam James), 14 years old, possessing a perpetual hunch, oblivious to sarcasm, so withdrawn as to nearly be a social cripple, is forced by his mother Pam (Toni Collette), divorced, to tag along with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his bitchy daughter to a Cape Cod resort town for the summer. Collette ably conveys her character as an emotional weakling, dependent upon a significant other for her own sense of self-worth, even if it’s an immature windbag like Trent. Carrell - perhaps a bit one-note, though perhaps the person he's playing is one note - is not afraid to play unlikable, wielding the word “buddy” passive-aggressively, masquerading as a surrogate father to Duncan by issuing orders – clean off your plate, leave a note – that he himself fails to heed. He attempts to lead by words, not by example.

While Trent fancies himself a mentor, Owen (Sam Rockwell), he of the omnipresent cargo shorts, flip-flops and bed hair, lifer at the rickety water park that saw its best days two decades ago (this movie feels like it belongs in the 80’s, which I admit is probably at least partly why I responded so strongly to it) where Duncan takes a job, seems less than ideal to be a figurehead to anyone. But first through happenstance and then of his own accord, Owen plays father figure to eccentric effect.

Let’s be honest, Duncan’s rite of passage on paper comes across entirely rote. But Rockwell, in an animated performance, goes a long way in making it still ring true. In a very real way, he is a poor role model, mid-thirties and managing a kid-rampant water park (what does he do in the off season, rent out snowboards in the Berkshires?), just another adult with an adolescent streak. But he has the common sense and decency not to try and mold his young charge into some preconceived package of what constitutes a Man, but see Duncan for who he is and help to him understand it and, ultimately, express it.

Maybe the most emblematic character is the weirdo at “the booth no one ever comes to”, played by Jim Rash (who wrote and directed the film along with Nat Faxon, who also has a bit part), who has been making threats to leave and move on for years only to never quite get around to doing so. Advancement is not necessarily the enemy, it’s just rife with difficulty and necessary of want. Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), the Diane Chambers to Owen’s Sam, was only going to be around for “one summer.” As if. Betty, Trent’s next-door neighbor, played by a hilariously garish Allison Janney, introduces herself to Pam by exclaiming: “I’m off the wagon. Accept it and move on.”

Her daughter (the majestically named AnnaSophia Robb) also seems mired in stagnation, tired of her same shallow O.M.G. besties. Thus, it’s credible that she would befriend the mopey Duncan – she’s not so much attracted to him as drawn to him, which is a crucial difference. And when she gets around to presenting Duncan with what I can only assume is his first kiss (like that’s a spoiler) it, smartly, is not so much a flicker of love as it is his indoctrination to young adulthood.

I wish Rash & Faxon, two Oscar winners for screenwriting, for God’s sake, had offered something more challenging than a (sigh) montage to illustrate Duncan’s initial transition from misanthrope to first level of outgoingness, and the water slide climax also may have benefited from something smaller and more human. These are but structural quibbles, and overcome with the greatest of ease by the movie’s buoyant spirit.

The final shots echo the first shots, save for the sight of our formerly meek hero’s mother crawling across the seat partitions to join her son way, way in back. It may not look like much, a several second journey in a musty station wagon, except as anyone who has taken, or tried to, knows, that journey is a whole lot harder and longer than it looks.


Anonymous said...

Great review once again. Have you seen The Kings of Summer? That's another coming-of-age movie released recently that was such a pleasant surprise to me.

This one has a more sensational cast, sounds like an entertaining flick despite the flaws. I'll definitely rent this one.

– ruth

Nick Prigge said...

No, I didn't see that one. It was in Chicago briefly but I didn't have a chance to get to it.

I'd highly recommend Way, Way Back. For me, it's the perfect sort of summer movie.