The Way Way Back Review: A Moving Summer Treat
I begin with a question: Does every teenager deal with some form of angst? Is there always something torturing their souls at some point? Maybe not, but no doubt something like the break up of a marriage is difficult for a teenager depending on the circumstances. As if your parents not being together wasn't enough to deal with, at some point you may have to see them begin a new relationship with someone else. If you like the person your parent is seeing, you'll live with it. However, if you don't, you'll still live with it. It may just take some time. A lot of time.
Fourteen year old Duncan (Liam James) is dealing with such trying a case. This coming of age tale begins on a vacation to his mother's boyfriend's summer house. Feeling rejected and disconnected, he's forced to suffer through a long and difficult summer at a place he would rather not be, dealing with people he would rather not be around, least of all the shining example of what a boyfriend and step-father should be, Trent (Steve Carell). That is, until he meets the fun-loving Owen (Sam Rockwell). Slowly but surely, things begin to turn around for young Duncan, who finds a big brother figure in Owen and a surrogate family in the staff at the water park where he works.
So the story itself isn't particularly fresh. That does not mean that there is nothing worth appreciating here. The cast comes ready to play in this film and everyone is on it. One memorable performance is turned in by Allison Janney, who plays the out-there divorcee neighbor Betty. She is going a million miles a minute and is particularly strong in her introductory scene. Steve Carrell's Trent is surprising, for lack of a better term. A true departure from anything I've seen him do in a while. I understood that his character seemed to be making a real effort to create some semblance of family, but I really didn't like him. I was right there with Duncan, which speaks to the talent of Carrell.
AnnaSophia Robb plays the girl next door Suzanne and she is always great in anything she does. This film is no exception, though I question the frequency with which she was used. Her scenes with Liam James' Duncan were authentic and felt like real teenager conversation. Speaking of James, I thought he was absolutely fantastic as Duncan. He was a real, awkward, moody, kind-hearted and introverted teenager, who just needed to feel like he belonged. James captures all of this quite naturally and when he's hurting, you feel that. He did a fantastic job.
Sam Rockwell is the films true show stopper. The entire movie nearly belonged to him. So great was his performance, that I thought he deserved his own paragraph. What can I say? The man is sharpness personified. We've seen him play good guys and not so good guys and he seems to have a lot of fun doing both. Here, Rockwell plays a good guy, he is a man who is a prankster with a warm, giving heart, and an aversion to any sense of responsibility. Humor is the weapon of choice and Rockwell delivers in spades. He's so fantastic that you can't get enough, he never gets boring. Like the main course of a meal, you could literally eat more of a performance such as the one Rockwell gave and not get full.
There is a great deal to be said for this dramedy that manages to make you laugh, maybe cry a little and also manages to say something poignant about connection when feeling out of place. It manages to shine a light on the importance of paying attention to a teenager and adults who are struggling. It also speaks to living life more fully, embracing one's self, the significance of father figures or older mentors and how they help us find our way to our more true selves. Because as the English metaphysical poet John Donne said, "No man is an island." No character in this film was alone in their struggles and neither are we.