Liam James is one of the most believable 14-year-old kids in movies I’ve seen in a long long time. He carries himself like he doesn’t know what to do with his arms, his neck. He’s still growing, and he’s not comfortable with his body and its out-shoots. His shy-ness and awkwardness doesn’t seem “acted”, it seems palpable and awkward in a way that is so true to life to 14 year old boys, where you yearn to help them just feel comfortable enough to sit still and have a conversation. For five minutes. Teenagers in film are often played by people over 18, who have forgotten what it was actually like. Adolescence is so awful that most of us do our best to distance ourselves from that time. Who wants to go back to middle school, raise your hands! No takers? Really? 14-years-old is not 16-years-old and many movies don’t get that difference.
The Way Way Back is a coming-of-age tale, one of my favorite genres when done right. I’m not sure I understand all of the 80s references, since this is not a period piece. Why is he listening to REO Speedwagon, for example, and why does the 14-year-old girl next door even recognize that song? I may be way out of touch with Kids Today but that seemed odd.
Duncan (Liam James) and his mom, Pam (Toni Colette) are on their way to spend their summer at a beach community with Mom’s new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent’s bitchy disaffected teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan wishes he could live with his dad, or at least spend the summer with him, but his Dad is dating someone new, and his Dad is moving, so a visit will have to wait until Dad is “settled”, or whatever. Mom’s new boyfriend Trent is a douche. There’s really no other word for it and it is so awesome to see Steve Carrell in the role of a douche. He’s excellent. I’ve always thought that actors who are known for comedy are often more adept at transforming themselves into whatever the hell they want to portray than those who are known for more serious roles. Carrell played it straight, and played it support staff in Hope Springs, as the marriage counselor, and it is a lovely performance. Not one wink to the audience, not one ironic twist. It was sincere. And here, in The Way Way Back he plays an emotional bully, and yet one who cloaks his bully side in a cloud of friendly plausible deniability – the WORST kind. Every moment is a power play with this douche. And his tone is never sharp, at least not overtly, so you couldn’t clock him on it. You know, he says to Duncan, “Hey, pal, we clean up after ourselves in this house, okay?” And it’s so Mean the way he says it, but the tone is mild and friendly. I know guys like this. They’re miserable sons-of-bitches, and I would never trust one of them for even a millisecond. And poor Duncan is just trapped in this situation. Duncan’s mother is sweet, but she is in the first flush of a new relationship, where hormones or whatever blind you to someone’s douchebag-self, so she asks Duncan to just “give it a try”, and she “knows it’s hard”, and blah blah blah, but this guy is BULLYING your son right under your nose and what are you gonna do about it?
Upon their arrival at the beach community (which reminds me so much of where I grew up), they are greeted by next-door neighbor and old pal of Trent’s Betty (played hilariously by Allison Janney). Betty is holding a cocktail, and filled with drunken joie de vivre. She bombards the entire family with an incessant inappropriate monologue as they unpack the car. You want her 1. to stop talking, because she’s so inappropriate and 2. never stop talking, because Allison Janney is so damn good. Young actors should study Allison Janney’s opening scene in The Way Way Back and try to deconstruct what it is she is doing, because it is an example of How to Make an Entrance. Good God, it’s great!
Betty has two kids, a son who has a lazy eye (River Alexander) which Betty cannot stop mentioning in public in a disparaging way (“Nobody knows where to look when they look at you!”), and a teenage daughter Susannah (the adorable AnnaSophia Robb). Susannah has a bunch of bitchy girlfriends who seem to boss her around, and she is, like Duncan, yearning to go live with her dad. Susannah is very pretty, and Duncan is tongue-tied when he tries to talk to her, and their initial interactions are so awkward you ache for it to end. Perfect.
So we have our conflicts set up. Trent has two party-hound friends who also summer in the same town, and they start hanging out at the house. They are played by Rob Corddry (I adore him) and Amanda Peet (I adore her, too). Pam, who is meeting her new beau’s friends for the first time, is polite and friendly, going with the flow, trying to make a good impression, but we in the audience can see things she can’t (or won’t). There’s an edge to some of Amanda Peet’s lines, there’s a vague sense of unfriendliness emanating from both of these partying people. It’s unsettling. And, of course, eventually it will explode. But for the beginning scenes, Pam is just trying to find her way, and in doing that, she completely ignores what is going on with Duncan.
Duncan discovers a nearby water park. The employees of said water park are all a little bit too old to still be holding these jobs, which is perfect and realistic, if you are familiar with such joints. There’s even a guy who works one of the booths who keeps saying he’s going to leave. He wants to be a storm-hunter. They even have a going-away party for him. But … he just can’t seem to quit for real. It reminded me of Adventureland, and its spot-on portrayal of a bunch of people working at an amusement park, all of whom really should be moving on to other things. That whole summer-job-mentality is par for the course in tourist towns (and, like I said, I grew up in a beach town, so I know this world very well). Duncan had already met Owen (Sam Rockwell) at a local pizza parlor, where Owen was playing Pac-Man with dead seriousness. Duncan tried to give him some tips on how to win, but Owen rejected said tips. He doesn’t want to be the best. He wants to enjoy the moment. Even if he loses.
Okay, so that’s a bit obvious, yes, but Sam Rockwell is the kind of actor who can pull it off. He is the kind of actor who can pull anything off.
Duncan is trapped in the house with Trent, a man who constantly criticizes and belittles him, but in such a passive-aggressive way that Duncan couldn’t even fight back. Trent is too powerful and manipulative. Trent values achievements and thinks Duncan is lazy. No matter what Duncan does he cannot make Trent have a higher opinion of him. But now, with Owen coming into his life, Duncan realizes that there are things more important than achievement. Or, to put another way, achievement doesn’t have to be serious and aspirational, it can also be: “Let’s see if we can race each other down these two water slides …” Duncan is 14 years old. Time enough for life to get all serious. Owen is a father figure, for sure, but a father figure who is irresponsible, impulsive, and childish in many ways. Owen is dating the manager of the water park, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph, love her) – although it takes a while for Duncan to pick up on the fact that those two are in a relationship. The main interactions between Owen and Caitlin have to do with her telling him what to do, in a tone of exasperation. Her annoyance becomes clear later in the film, when she tells Owen that she doesn’t LIKE being the nag, why does he make her into that?
We don’t learn much about Owen. We don’t know why a guy in his 40s still works in a water park, and lives in a ramshackle apartment on the water park premises. We don’t know why he has no goals, has not advanced. It doesn’t matter. He is King of the Water Park. And he takes Duncan under his wing. He does so in a way that is, to sound like a Grandma, age-appropriate. Duncan is 14 years old. He’s not 17. There’s a huge difference, as I mentioned, and Owen gets that difference. Duncan is a child. Owen tries to get Duncan to loosen up a bit, laugh, understand humor, not take things so seriously, and do things that are scary (like break up a mob of kids break-dancing right next to the pool). Duncan finds strength in himself he didn’t know he had. He starts to feel confident in himself, something that kids need, and something that Trent was consciously picking away at.
The rest of the film unfolds pretty much as you would expect, but it’s filled with such funny smart performances you barely notice the cliches. Toni Collette is heartbreaking. Yes, she’s dropping the ball with her son, but she’s trying to make a life for herself and she thought this might be a good one. We all do that. We make mistakes. Susannah is not a typical disaffected teenage girl. She knows things, she knows things about ghost crabs, and how their eyeballs swivel, and she talks to Duncan about these things. She is embarrassed by her mother’s drunken shenanigans, and she and Duncan bond in an unspoken way about how much they miss their respective dads. Their scenes together are sweet and unexpected.
Sam Rockwell could play this role in his sleep (his earliest lead roles were these types of magical child-like men, in films like Box of Moon Light, Lawn Dogs). But he brings such a reality to whatever he does. As with all great actors, his great-ness is in the quality of his listening. Duncan is a kid, and not totally in control of how he comes across, or the language he uses. He’s awkward as hell. Sam Rockwell, from the get-go, listens to what Duncan isn’t saying. He is in tune with Duncan’s behavior. He picks up on the cues that Duncan isn’t in control of. So he looks at Duncan, with a friendly sort of assessing expression. Owen is a goofball who treats every moment as though he is a wise-cracking game show host. Duncan is too literal to “get” humor. This pains Owen. He sets out to break Duncan down. But later, when things start to fall apart for Duncan, there’s a moment of vulnerability, where Duncan actually gets to be a kid (which he IS), and Owen gets to be the father who takes care of things, and tells Duncan it’s going to be okay, and HE is okay, no matter what any douchebag says. Don’t let ANYONE make you feel like you are not a good person, or a worthwhile person.
Rockwell handles all of this material gracefully, beautifully, and easily. The film is not sentimental about his character. Owen clearly has some issues. But he is the right person for Duncan to meet at that particular time. The interactions between these two actors are beautiful to behold. Watch Rockwell’s assessing face, with humor always operating, but confusion there too. You see him thinking, Who the hell is making this cool kid feel bad about himself?