Everybody has a summer that changes their life.
So says The Way Way Back’s tagline. I have yet to experience my life-changing summer. I hope it happens soon, and with less drama than poor old Duncan’s. Luckily, my family dynamics aren’t like his, and I’m grateful for that. He’s a lonely kid in a broken family. His mum has started dating a new guy, Trent, and this summer they’re all going to his beach house, where old friends will reminisce and bad things will occur.
Trent, played by Steve Carell, is a bastard. He’s the kind of guy who sneaks his way into a fractured family, seduces the heartbroken mother and forces himself upon her existing children. He believes that trust and respect are important to the foundation of any relationship, and he exercises this by bossing Duncan (Liam James) around and forcing him to wear life jackets on slow yacht rides. As the movie opens, he questions Duncan: “On a scale from 1 to 10, what do you think you are?”. Duncan says he thinks he’s a six. “A three. That’s what I think you are”, Trent retorts. Who says something like that?
The aspiring family reaches the beach house, and they’re immediately greeted by Trent’s motormouthed neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), who’s friendly enough but would never pass a parenting exam. Her youngest son, Peter (River Alexander), has crooked eyes, and she teases him constantly about them. I’m not a parent, but I swear that stuff’s traumatic. Sure, Peter takes it in good spirit. But would he continue to do so when his future girlfriend comes face to face with the woman who claims not to know which way her own son is looking? It’s a rare treat to witness believable parent-child relationships in movies. Writers try to form real bonds. Directors try. Yes, even the actors try. But 9 times out of 10, movie parents have no earthly idea how to discipline their offspring.
Trent has a daughter from a previous marriage, and she is a spoilt brat who pours her heart and soul into bikinis and the beach, and thinks she can make up for her ill behaviour by offering to wash the dishes. She speaks in that kind of stereotypical bimbo lingo — “Oh my gawwwwd” — and has conversations with her bimbo friends that border on infantile. I don’t understand how a child like her could’ve been raised by a father like Trent, whose model of the perfect child is neither of his kids.
All these characters are repulsive. They exist within the story to aggravate Duncan, who finds solace in a nearby water park. The park is owned by Owen (Sam Rockwell, never more likeable or approachable), whose apartment sits atop the park’s management office. Naturally, Owen’s carefree lifestyle is a magnet for Duncan, who grows to see him as the father he never had. That old chestnut. Why Owen takes so kindly to Duncan is something I can’t comprehend. I see no affable trait in Duncan, who resembles a corpse with working legs. But never mind. The plot has to move forward, so quite rightly the writers sidestep certain explanations.
Needless to say, the scenes in the water park are the movie’s best. They are filled with colour, with life, with fun characters, with depth of humanity. The people seem like people, and not like levers and knobs working only to enable the plot. There’s a lovely romance brewing between Owen and his leading employee, Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), and there’s Lewis (Jim Rash, one of the movie’s directors), an effeminate lanky man who runs the park’s bathers kiosk. Both Caitlyn and Lewis want to leave the park — Owen isn’t an easy man to work for — but find themselves staying out of love for the job. It’s all great drama. Here, even Duncan’s skin takes on some life.
I’d have been very happy to have watched an hour and forty-five minutes of the water park scenes. Compared to them, the scenes inside the beach house, with all their family politics and screwed up board games, seem redundant, intrusive even. Sure, Steve Carell plays Trent straight, and at times he can be quite intimidating, but the whole gang is bad news. Why not have Duncan’s problems expressed in flashback? Focus all the attention on where the fun is, and intercut that with moments of sadness, instead of trying to balance the good stuff with the bad. I dunno. It might work for some people. But all I want to do is dive down that water slide again and again.
Best Moment | All of Rockwell’s scenes.
Worst Moment | Nah, there’s no standout “worst moment”.