I’m “biast” (con): getting really tired of teen boys’ coming-of-age stories
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I won’t deny that when I first heard about this flick and saw the trailer, my first thought was, Really? Another movie about a shy, gawky, angsty teen boy who triumphantly overcomes his lack of a hot blonde girlfriend?
But I’m glad to say that I loved The Way, Way Back — it’s one of the more achingly poignant stories of awkward (male) adolescence I’ve seen, and one of the best movies of 2013 (so far). Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who both appear in small roles here and previously contributed to the marvelous screenplay for The Descendants), this is their directorial debut… and their job as filmmakers was about 75 percent done once they’d assembled their incredible cast and let them loose on their lovely script, with its clear-eyed perspective on how the awfulness of trying to figure out who you are as an adolescent isn’t helped when all the grownups around you are such a mess themselves.
What does the title mean? It’s a bit of a mystery… but it could refer to the penchant of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James: 2012, Fred Claus) to escape to the way, way back of the old-fashioned station wagon, to the seat that faces backward out the rear of the car, to not have to cope with his family. (This scenario opens the film, and the film will return to it, poignantly, in the end.) For Duncan is subject to constant emotional abuse under the withering glare and cutting words of Trent, his mother’s boyfriend; he’s one of those assholes who thinks being mean is good for bucking up a young man. I’ve never seen Steve Carell (Despicable Me 2, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) play so sharply unpleasant a character before, and I loved hating him here. Mom Pam is apparently so terrified of being alone that she doesn’t even notice Trent’s abuse; Toni Collette (Fright Night, Tsunami: The Aftermath) is so believable as wounded and fragile and needy. Their neighbors at Trent’s Cape Cod beach house, where they’re spending the summer — yes, this is all about the travails of rich white people — are friendly drunk Betty (Allison Janney [The Oranges, The Help], always a goddess of wit and spirit) and her bored daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb [Race to Witch Mountain, Jumper], on her way to becoming a goddess), who rolls her eyes at the “spring break for adults” everyone around her and Duncan are enjoying while they suffer.
Ah, but Duncan escapes to a secret job at a nearby water park, where he befriends managers Owen (Sam Rockwell: Seven Psychopaths, Cowboys & Aliens) and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph: Grown Ups 2, Friends with Kids). Now, this entire cast — which also includes Rob Corddry (Pain and Gain, Warm Bodies) and Amanda Peet (Identity Thief, Gulliver’s Travels) — is amazing, as always, but when I tell you that Sam Rockwell steals this movie, as a wiseacre whose humor is covering up his own pain, you will surely nod and say, “Well, of course. Sam Rockwell steals every movie he’s in.” But no: Rockwell here is far beyond other-movie-Rockwell on the awesome scale as other-movie-Rockwell usually is from everyone else around him.
I’m not sure anyone has ever stolen a movie the way Rockwell does here, certainly not from such very worthy fellow actors. That the movie was already so damn smart and funny and wise before he even showed up makes his win here all the more astonishing.