A Small Film With a Heart

Director: NAT FAXON, JIM RASH/2013

The Way Way Back is an example of counter-programming to the extreme amongst the over-saturation of tent-pole blockbusters who keep landing each week, 2 or 3 at a time.  Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (2 of the 3 Academy Award Winning Screenwriters of The Descendants), the cast is an independent filmmakers dream.  In addition to both Faxon and Rash who have small character roles in the film, The Way Way Back stars Steve Carrell (The Office, Despicable Me 2), Allison Janey (The West Wing), Toni Collette (Sixth SenseLittle Miss Sunshine, About a Boy), Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids, Grown-Ups 2), Amanda Peet (Whole Nine Yards, Identity Thief), and Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Seven Psychopaths).

This story is a much simpler one than The Descendants, but it is also a lot more fun, despite looking at some rather serious subjects such as broken homes, relationships, and where one belongs.  The film is the story of Duncan, played by Liam James, who is being dragged along with his mother (Toni Collette) to her boyfriend’s (Steve Carrell) beach house, along with his (Carrell’s) daughter.  Duncan is a quiet, and reserved soul who is missing a relationship with his father, and who obviously isn’t going to find one with his mother’s beau, who is both mean spirited and selfish, and who casts Duncan aside despite pursuing Duncan’s mother.

Steve Carrell has played ego-centric characters before with Michael Scott of The Office being the biggest example.  His turn here, as Trent, though, is much more malicious than Michael Scott ever was.  While Michael Scott was naive in his selfishness, yet basically good natured, in Trent we see a much darker, brooding character, that you will actually hate from the opening scene in a memorable exchange with Duncan about his worth as a human being (on a scale of 1 to 10).  This conversation sets the tone for their relationship, as well as how lost Duncan feels, having no place in a family structure that affirms him, or amongst his peers, as Carrell’s character’s daughter also shuns him for not being part of the cool crowd.

While his mom and her boyfriend hang out with other adults, who act much like kids themselves, Duncan is left to wander the small beach-front town in search of something to do.  It is here, that the film begins to shine, as Duncan encounters Owen (Sam Rockwell), who is a manager at the local water slide park, Water Wizz.  Owen is a grown-up kid himself who, like the dated looking water park he runs, seems to be stuck in 1983 both fashionably, and emotionally.  But he, unlike the father figures in Duncan’s life, is an individual who welcomes and affirms Duncan without any ulterior motive.  Taking a job at Water Wizz, Duncan begins the journey of self-discovery that will give him the courage to address the hurt in his life, as well as challenge Trent’s question of what he is truly worth. Sam Rockwell steals every scene he is in and provides most of the laughs.

Maya Rudolph is also a pleasant addition playing a fellow manager at Water Wizz, named Caitlin, who Owen has really been pining for, but who he’ll never win due to his own emotional arrested development as he still acts like a 14 year old kid.  She challenges Owen to be better and is an anchor in his life. But unlike Duncan’s mother, Pam, whose self worth is so torn down she’ll allow herself to be taken advantage of by Trent, Caitlin, understands that she cannot settle for a love from Owen that is merely convenient. She won’t be in a relationship until both she and him are emotionally healthy.  By holding out to Owen’s advances, until he accepts the responsibility of doing life in a way befitting his age, she also models the type of woman Duncan wishes his mother was towards Trent.

The scenes at Water Wizz are the most fun part of the movie, as is any scene with Allison Janey’s alcoholic, never appropriate role as Trent’s neighbor, and mother to two children who also play roles in Duncan’s development.  In The Way, Way Back, you will be transported back to the time of being an awkward teenager, trying to figure out just who you are, and how to find your way through the many land mines that life seems to put in your path.

Ultimately, this film has a powerful message of community, and what a family truly is.  Everyone is looking for a place to belong, where they can truly be themselves, with no masks, or conditions.  We all want to be accepted, warts and all.  Family, ideally, is supposed to be that place.  This film, however, shows that increasingly in our culture, that family is often not a place of acceptance for many.  More and more children come from broken homes.  Sometimes, the adults in those homes and families, are so broken themselves, that they don’t know how to truly love their children in a way that provides that safety and security that children need as they are developing into their own persons.

This film does not seek to provide an answer for this dilemma as much as acknowledge its ever present reality in our lives.  Instead, the film encourages those who might find themselves not truly fitting in, with an alternate form of family.  Here it is presented as a group of people working at a place where they support one another, accept each person’s own idiosychrocies, and celebrate each other’s successes.  They hold up the ideal, while living in the moment, even when it falls short of the goals they have for themselves.

This film begins with a journey towards a place, and by the end points you forward, even as you are on the way, way back home.