The fine people at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens were kind enough to schedule this advanced screening of Fox Searchlight’s The Way Way Back on the day before the official start of Communies Take Manhattan, a meetup planned by an east coast group of TV-loving Twitter friends. Why would Community fans be particularly interested in seeing this coming-of-age comedy together, aside from their impeccable taste? Let’s just say this movie is where their favorite show meets the silver-DEAN.
The screening was followed by a talkback with cast members Liam James (Duncan) and Sam Rockwell (Owen), plus writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. That’s right, my friends. This poignant and witty ensemble dramedy is the brainchild of Ben Fox and Dean Pelton.
Okay fine, so they’re also ACADEMY AWARD WINNING screenwriters. Nat and Jim took home the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their work on The Descendants, which gave them the Hollywood muscle to take the lead on their next project. At the talkback, they told us that they also carry around the “travel size” versions of their awards, just in case they ever need to prove something. Nice strategy, but The Way Way Back is proof enough for me that they are and will continue to be the real deal.
The Way Way Back chronicles a summer that 14-year-old Duncan spends with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s surly daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) at Trent’s east coast vacation house. While his mom tries to keep up (“It’s like spring break for adults.”) with Trent’s summer friends Betty (Alison Janney), Kip (Rob Corddry), and Joan (Amanda Peet), Duncan escapes the house to be befriended by Owen, the boyish and capricious manager of the local waterpark. Duncan wear his loneliness like a Water Wizz employee t-shirt, so Owen offers him a job at the park. He blooms under the interest of his new friends and Duncan’s mysterious new confidence draws the attention of Betty’s restless daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), if not that of his distracted mother.
Frankly, you could put this cast in a reenactment of an episode of Whodunnit? and it would probably be gold. Toni Collette plays Pam as a confused woman doing her best to navigate a huge transition in the life of her and her kid. I can’t ever remember seeing Steve Carell play such a boundlessly unlikeable character, and he did it so well that I’m still a little mad at him. Jim Rash described Trent in the talkback as “passive aggressive” and that’s an understatement. He approaches his life with teeth bared, looking to take someone down before they can get to him first. (Shallow Editor’s Note: Carell also clearly bulked up for this role and the ladies in our group were…well, reacting. Kim even appointed him to her Top 5.)
Alison Janney is – as always – completely delightful as lovable lush Betty. And no one could have played a more complete or engaging Owen than Sam Rockwell, an actor who doesn’t so much disappear into his roles as he overlays his own distinct qualities onto them. The film basically rests on the performance of Liam James, since the audience shares the perspective of Duncan. (If I remember correctly, there is no scene in the film that occurs outside of Duncan’s sight or hearing.) Liam nails both Duncan’s reserve with his family and goofy chutzpah as Water Wizz’s Employee of the Month. Rob Corddry’s Kip is a willfully ignorant good-time guy who pretends not to notice how Peet’s prickly and jealous Joan fixates on Trent’s new relationship. I’m always pleased to see Maya Rudolph, whose character Caitlyn is tired of playing mother to Owen and urges him to grow up – just a little. Faxon and Rash cast themselves as other members of the Water Wizz team – fratty Roddy and sad-sack Lewis, respectively.
MoMI screened this film as a part of their Coming of Age Comedies: The Summer Edition screening series, which also includes classics Meatballs, The Goonies, and The Sandlot. Those movies and others like them are so ingrained in my soul, that I at first didn’t consciously recognize what an influence they had on this film. An audience member pointed out the scarcity of tech in this film, though it’s set in the present, which heightens the alienation that Duncan, Pam, and Susanna feel and the urgency of friendships they make. Nat and Jim talked about the timelessness of those summer places – the friends you only see once a year; the houses that are never redecorated. That retreat from the real world sets the scene for bad behavior or uncharacteristic heroics. The Way Way Back follows in that grand tradition of magical summers, the tropes of which are familiar to me as breathing. But this movie isn’t at all formulaic. It flips those tropes on their head, especially as they pertained to the grown-up/kid power dynamic.
**MILD SPOILERS AHOY**
For example, Duncan finds out something about Trent that leads to a blow-up with his mom and he pedals away to the Water Whizz to see Owen. It’s night, and music is blasting from the employee clubhouse as he walks tentatively in. Kim and I raised eyebrows at each other, knowing that this would be the moment in the coming-of-age movie when the fun adult friend is proven not to be worthy of hero worship or suited to be the emotional guardian of a kid in crisis, thereby sending the kid running back to his parental figures. Instead, Owen and the rest of his friends let Duncan stay at the party (safely away from the beer) all night, and their joyful affection for him gives him the strength to go back home the next day and face the music.
If our prior expectations had us waiting for Trent to redeem himself, then we were disappointed. The meaning of the film’s title is two-fold, as Jim Rash told us: “the way way back” is what some families called the back seat in their station wagon or van, but it also refers to the journey a mother and son are taking back to each other. This movie isn’t about ~makin’ it work~ as a blended family. It’s about holding your people closest to you and riding the storms together. Trent is the only character who learns NOTHING over the course of the summer. He allows no one to have influence over him. Pam thought she was enduring Trent’s bullying and infidelity because that’s what people DO, especially people with children to take care of. (When she tells the story of how she and Trent got together to his summer friends, she begins to realize that his relentless pursuit of her was less about love at first sight and more about Trent’s ferocious need to WIN.) It’s Duncan’s honesty and her discovery of a secret life that she knows nothing about that pushes her to finally stand up for him and for herself.
Then there’s Betty, a soused mom initially played for laughs who ends up being one of the most honest and perceptive adults in the movie. (“I think you’re great.”) And again, ALISON JANNEY: HUMAN SUNSHINE.
**END OF SPOILERS**
The heart of the movie is all Owen and Duncan. Owen is a bit of a slacker, but he’s KIND. He rightly feels responsible for Duncan from early on in their friendship and allows the trust that Duncan has in him to bring out a little more of his inner adult. It’s one of the most touching mentor/mentee relationships I’ve seen onscreen. And many kudos to the film for the sweet love story between Owen and Caitlyn. It’s the kind of grown-up shit you rarely see in movies where people, you know, just SAY what they need from each other and then try to be that.
Lest I am making this film sound too melodramatic, be assured that it’s often hilarious, especially during Rockwell’s manic monologues. Liam James also has a grasp on comic timing as strong as actors twice his age, which comes out to play when he invites the audience to laugh (not meanspiritedly) at Duncan’s awkwardness.
Tidbits from the Q&A:
- Water Wizz is a real, working water park on Boston’s South Shore and it was open for business for the entirety of filming. Sam Rockwell forgot this once when he was doing some R-rated ad-libbing on the park PA and got into some trouble with the management.
- Nat and Jim wrote this script 8 years ago, long before their Oscar win.
- Little Liam James told the audience that he loved the cast and crew “to the moon and back” and we’re all dead now.
- We told Nat Faxon what rabid Ben and Kate fans we are and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. RIP, SHOW.
- Jim Rash grew his Lewis moustache so long that he could almost connect it under his bottom lip.
- Both Faxon and Rash grew up going away for family summers. The “I think you’re a 3” conversation between Trent and Duncan that opens the movie is based on a similar conversation Jim had with his stepfather.
- Sam Rockwell acknowledged that his performance was an homage to Bill Murray, the king of fun adult friends.
- The Edie Brickell songs on the opening and closing credits were written especially for the movie.
- Thank you to our Communie friends for enduring our “real, live fangirling” with patience and understanding.
- You KNOW we had to go meet these guys before we left.
An audience member spoke for all of us in the talkback when she thanked the filmmakers for “making us feel things.” I will shelve this DVD next to Friends with Kids in the “Thank God Some People Are Still Making Movies Like This” section. The Way Way Back officially hits theaters on July 5th. Readers, are you planning on seeing it? What’s your favorite coming-of-age summer movie?