(I reviewed this movie back during Sundance. Reprinting the review here as the movie is in theaters now.)
I loved this film. It’s the kind of “little gem” project you hope to find at Sundance, but, sadly, all too rarely do. I sat through a lot of smut and sloppy messes at the world’s “premier” indie film fest, but finding this little movie made the whole trip worth it for me. (As Emily Dickinson put it, “I fear I have not expressed myself strongly enough.”)
The best “coming of age” movie since Almost Famous, The Way, Way Back stands out among the ever-accumulating panoply of dysfunctional parent-child relationship movies that seem to be the only story Gen Xers and Milennials want to tell. What this film adds to the equation is an actual model of help for kids who are getting lost because their parents are off finding themselves.
Written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who gave us last year’s Oscar nominee, The Descendants, this project should establish the Groundlings alumni duo as the hottest writers in Hollywood.
The plot is simple but packs a load of charm. Fourteen year old Duncan, played with painful but sympathetic awkwardness by Liam James (The Killing), needs to escape the controlling disapproval of his mother’s live-in boyfriend, Trent. Trent is infuriating and hypocritical, and so makes for a weird role for Steve Carell. But he completely commits to it and before long we are ducking with Duncan, every time Trent barks out a disdainful command. Duncan and his mother have made the trek to Trent’s beach house for the summer, and for always more horrified Duncan, there simply is nowhere to hide from the adults behaving badly.
In a escapist frenzy, Duncan finds his way to a run-down water-park, which is captained by the open-hearted slacker Owen, played with just the right touch of masculine sensitivity by Sam Rockwell. Also at the park are a troupe of social misfits, who judge not, and welcome the stuttering, embarrassed Duncan into their strange world. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, and the young man finds acceptance, understanding, trust and kindness – basically the opposite of all the things life with Trent has come to mean.
There is so much hope in this movie. It basically gives permission for each of us to look around, find a kid who is falling through the cracks, and make the effort to find the treasure in the field. I think the greatest thing Owen does for Duncan is just to like him. My sense is a lot of kids today are being raised in a world in which their parents love them, as their progeny, but don’t really like them, because they take so much time and patience away from the adults’ own lives. As my Mother always said, “When it comes to raising kids, there is no such thing as ‘quality time,’ there is only time.”
There is a bit of crass language early on in the film which mainly comes from Allison Janney’s character. Her role carries a wonderful reversal in which our first inclination is to dismiss her as a loud, immature, busybody, but, by the end of the film, we know she is actually much more human than the “normal” grownups in the film.
The film is small in scope but carries a good story in a way that most 100 million dollar studio films today seem to be unable. It has great actors, great dialogue, some fantastic moments and should make for a great “take your teens to the movies” night. The Way Way Back is about the mess we are in culturally, but without cynicism or despair. Two thumbs way, way up.