Published on September 8th, 2013 | by Will Murphy0
The Way Way Back
I shouldn’t like The Way Way Back as much as I do. On the surface, it seems like such a typical Sundance movie. It’s a coming of age story based around an awkward adolescent male who goes on a slightly quirky trip with his dysfunctional family. Along the way, the family will undergo stress that might break them up, the boy will meet a “too cool for school” mentor figure who brings this young boy out of his shell and eventually the boy shall become a man and the film will end on an optimistic, if somewhat bittersweet, note. Wash, rinse, repeat and win yourself a jury prize for your feelgood Summer hit. So then, what is it about this film that makes me like it so much?
The plot is as described above. Duncan, our coming of age male, is going on vacation with his mother, her boyfriend and his daughter to the boyfriend’s Summer beach house. While there, Duncan meets the neighbour’s daughter and is introduced to the mentor character, Owen, who’ll help Duncan go on a voyage of self discovery into adulthood. Christ. Reading that back, it makes the film sound so tedious and boring. But that is what happens. So if the plot doesn’t make the film likeable, what is it?
Well, first off the performances are pretty much uniformly great. Sam Rockwell as Owen manages to walk that fine line between being a likeable asshole and an unlikable asshole. It’s a really well judged comic performance and it’s always good to see Rockwell get work. Toni Collette and Maya Rudolph do excellent work as the women in Duncan’s life. The background characters played by Jim Rash, Rob Corddry and particularly Allison Janney are worth the price of admission alone. But it’s Steve Carell who really steals the show playing the special type of bastard; not evil per se, just cold, undermining and basically everything you’re afraid that your Mum’s new boyfriend would be.
Moreover, the film is consistently hilarious, which, considering this is the directorial debut of both Jim Rash (Dean Pelton in Community) and Nat Faxon, is all the more impressive. It uses its background characters to just turn out great line after great line. Of Allison Janney’s first ten lines in the script, nine of them are laugh out loud funny. The other one acts as a build up for joke number nine. Joke after joke land so well without ever seeming goofy or insincere. Everything about it just feels so natural and pure. These are real people and these are their lives.
The sincerity and humour really works because at the core of this film is a very sweet heart. Despite the fact that it can seem to just try and tick the box of a feelgood hit of the Summer, the film seems to rise above the cynicism that surrounds it. Yet the film never loses sight of the fact that it is about being an awkward and fractured person from a broken home. Its deeply ingrained sweetness just helps to make the more emotionally crushing moments all that more powerful. Characters cling to unhealthy relationships, these places and times that made us feel so good at one point in our lives that have long since passed their expiration date. Forgotten children and old water parks. They cling to the safety nets regardless of the fact of whether or not they are detrimental to them. What the film so expertly shows is the importance of letting these things go. It’s a simple little message, but that doesn’t mean it is not incredibly powerful.
The Way Way Back is a sweet, heartfelt little film that just makes me happy. With that said though, I am a sucker this type of movie so that will colour my view of this film with a more rosy hue, but I can’t deny the power its final moments. The film begins and ends with us looking back at a road through a rear view mirror. It is a helpful reminder that we can look back at what we have passed, but we can’t hold onto it forever. We need to keep going. We’re helpless in this regard, but at least we have our memories and that is all we need. Will Murphy