Fourteen is a painful age for any kid…but for young Duncan (Liam James), it’s a real tribulation: he’s shy and unsure of himself, and his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) has dragooned him into spending the summer in a coastal Massachusetts beach house with her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his conceited daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan, if he had his druthers, would prefer spending his vacation with his father—he doesn’t learn until later into the family’s holiday festivities that the reason he’s not enjoying R&R with his dad…is that Dad doesn’t want him around.
It takes a person with huge cojones to tell an emotionally fragile kid he’s unwanted…and that man is Trent Ramsey. There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Trent is an asshole, and why Pam hasn’t kicked him to the curb by now is a question that can only be answered (after an exhausting climb) by The Old Man from the Mountain. (Duncan reveals a secret about Trent to his mother and Trent lets loose with “your-dad-doesn’t-want-you” in childish retaliation.) Trent, dickhead that he is, is going to do all that’s in his power to make certain Duncan has a miserable summer…but Duncan will find salvation in both a ragtag group of misfits who work at a nearby water park (an attraction that takes him on as an employee) and a sympathetic teenager (AnnaSophia Robb) staying in the beach house next door.
The title of the 2013 coming-of-age film The Way Way Back refers to Duncan’s seating assignment (the seat in the “cargo section”) in the station wagon that’s taking the family to the Ramsey’s beach house. Trent’s true colors are immediately revealed in an opening scene when he asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale from one to ten. Duncan believes himself to be a six, but Trent stomps on his self-esteem by telling him he’s only a three. It’s awkward not only to listen to but watch, and yet it gives us a heads-up that constantly squelching Duncan’s confidence seems to be Trent’s passion in life. He embarrasses the kid at every opportunity throughout the film—one excruciating moment finds Trent insisting that Duncan wear a lifejacket while the family is aboard a boat belonging to Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). Duncan is the only person wearing one, and is mortified as a result.
The “one-to-ten scale” conversation that opens the film was based on a real-life chinwag that actor Jim Rash (the peculiar Dean Pelton from the TV sitcom Community) had with his stepfather at Duncan’s age, and The Way Way Back served as the directorial debut of Rash and partner Nat Faxon, both of whom took home an Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (along with director Alexander Payne) for 2011’s The Descendants. Faxon and Payne’s script beautifully conveys the agony of adolescence while alleviating much of the discomfort of Duncan’s unfortunate summer with sharp humor and fully delineated characters. The duo even demonstrates their acting talents by playing two of the water park employees in the movie: Jim is the dour Lewis and Nat is Roddy, the sidekick of Owen (Sam Rockwell)—who takes on the assignment of becoming Duncan’s friend and champion.
The acting in The Way Way Back is incredible. Carell doesn’t make any effort to demonstrate Trent’s good qualities (emphasized in a sequence where the family plays Candy Land); sure, he seems charming where Pam’s concerned, but every word that comes out of his mouth when conversing with Duncan is coated in insincerity (it’s mentioned early on he’s a car salesman, which tells you all you need to know). We don’t learn until the end of the film that Pam stays with Trent only because her divorce has left her scared and unsure of herself; she’s not that much different from her son, truth be told, and it’s this honest admission that Pam doesn’t have all of life’s answers that allows the bond between mother and son to become that much stronger (expressed in a simple gesture where she joins him in “the way way back”).
I first watched The Way Way Back on an HBO freeview weekend not long after the movie had left theatres, and while I was initially attracted to the film because I saw Toni Collette was in the cast (she’s another actress that Oscar has ignored—save for a nomination for 1999’s The Sixth Sense—and I’ve been a fan of hers since Muriel’s Wedding ) I find with hindsight that it’s Allison Janney who’s guilty of cinematic larceny. As the gregarious and flirtatious next-door neighbor Betty, Janney seems to be rehearsing for her role on the TV sitcom Mom and gets many of Way Back’s best lines (explaining to Pam why she’s not talking to a certain couple she confides: “They called me a See-You-Next-Tuesday…to my face”).
On the distaff acting honors side, Sam Rockwell channels his inner Bill Murray as the devil-may-care Owen, constantly cracking wise and yet able to impart a little wisdom to Duncan (who clearly admires him) when the kid expresses a wish to stay and continue working at “Water Wizz.” “You’re going to love the winters,” muses Owen. “They’re pretty spectacular. Painting houses until it gets too cold, bar backing at some dive, talking to inanimate objects…” Owen, who has Peter Pan issues of his own (as his long-suffering girlfriend and Water Wizz co-employee Caitlin [Maya Rudolph] will attest), has walked a mile in Duncan’s shoes where Trent is concerned: “My dad was the same way. That’s why I don’t like patterns and rules. And that’s why you can’t buy into that shit. You gotta go your own way.”
At the time of The Way Way Back’s release many critics who thought highly of the film lamented that Rockwell’s charming, funny performance should have earned him an Academy Award nomination…but Sam would eventually get the last laugh: this year, he finally got his trophy for his supporting performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). (And in one of those wonderful cinematic coinky-dinks, Allison Janney took home an Oscar that same year for her turn in I, Tonya .) Way Way Back is one of my favorite “recent” films and getting the opportunity to revisit it (found the DVD at HamiltonBook.com) was a real treat.