The Way Way Back marks a nice directorial debut for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Imagine a young teen’s terrible summer vacation at a beach where he’s too young for the older kids, too old for the younger kids, and generally ignored except for a community he finds at a water park nearby.
Both Faxon and Rash have supporting roles in the film as water park employees and longer resumes as actors than as writers, though writing is what has landed them the success that likely made this film possible. Before co-writing The Way Way Back, they co-wrote The Descendents with Alexander Payne and took home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
But, back to The Way Way Back, which refers literally to the back of a classic station wagon where Duncan sits far away from his mom’s boyfriend Trent, (Steve Carrell), his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin).
There are some good performances (who knew Steve Carrell could be so mean?) and nice movie moments, but Liam James really carries the picture as Duncan, a 14-year-old boy who feels beaten down by his mom’s boyfriend, abandoned to some degree by his mother, and as uncomfortable in his own skin as I imagine all boys his age must feel.
In addition to James, Carrell, and Collette, I particularly Allison Janney, as an out of control neighbor, and Sam Rockwell as Owen, the water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing.
There’s a line in the film about the beach in summer functioning as spring break for adults, and the whole experience reveals to Duncan that not only do adults not have everything figured out but they can behave as badly as the worst of the high school mean girls and middle school bullies.
There are some searing moments. It makes me cringe to think about the cruel remarks – intentional and incidental – that parents and other adults toss off at their children in this film. But unlike another film that traffics in this type of emotional hurt, The Squid and the Whale, there isn’t quite enough character development in The Way Way Back to make all of the relationships clear and meaningful.
Notably, Trent’s daughter, Steph, is completely underwritten. It would not have taken much screen time to have given the audience some sense of her relationship with her father, which, in turn, would have relevance to the way he treats Duncan and the way she and Duncan interact in their few scenes together.
I’m not talking about interactions and characterizations that are too obvious or contrived. Faxon and Rash handle subtlety well, as with the water park romance between Owen and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). Nuance is good, but make sure there is enough “there” there.
The Way Way Back is worth seeing, but I wish the film had been better than the trailer instead a little less promising than the promotional piece.