The Way, Way Back opens with 14 year old Duncan sitting in the back of the family car as it is riding towards a summer vacation which only promises awkwardness and misery. His back is turned to his family; he is an outsider to them, he is so far deep into his shell that he has lost any real connection with his mother and father, now split up, and instead spends most of his time hating on his mother’s new boyfriend Trent. Duncan has perfectly good reason to hate him, as Trent is a belittling, bullying and nasty character who hides his true nature under a sickly sweet and charming persona into which everyone accepts. In the opening scene, Duncan stares at the camera while turned away from his family in such a horribly sad way, as if pleading to the audience to look away. Although Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s new film is a comedy of sorts, Duncan’s empty gaze lingered with me all the way through the film, through the funny and the sad moments. There is a sort of beauty in how Faxon and Rash have managed to interweave such a powerful and in some ways, quite tragic story with such wonderful humour. Not only is The Way, Way Back a moving and extraordinary tale, but it is also incredibly funny.
After Duncan arrives at their summer house in a small little seaside town, he is constantly quiet and shy in the face of his often remarkably horrid neighbours, which include Betty (who makes her son wear an eyepatch because he is cross eyed) and Joan, who as the tale unfolds becomes a catalyst for fighting and confrontations inside Duncan’s family. After a while, Duncan finds a pink children’s bike, and rides away from his family in search of a sense of peace, or maybe just a break from social situations. What he doesn’t expect to find is the fast talking and extremely funny manager of the local water park (an inspired performance from Moon‘s Sam Rockwell), who takes Duncan under his wing and gives him a job at the park. Duncan finds a life here, he finds himself embraced by the senior staff members, and for once, he is happy. It isn’t a particularly original story by any stretch, a generic, coming of age story that ticks a good deal of stereotypical alienated teenager boxes. However, Faxon and Rash excel on their directorial debuts, and their execution makes this film stand out from the rest.
One of these lovely directorial touches is the fact that the whole film is effectively from the perspective of Duncan, and it could only have been more so if it was filmed in the first person. We rarely, if at all, see an event of a scene which he is not present, and although this means we see some characters as two dimensional, we are assured at least that this is the way Duncan sees them. In particular, the ghastly figure of Trent could have a better side to him, if the film looked further. Instead we see the uttermost worst in him, and Steve Carell brings a jaw dropping performance and transforms him into one of the most horrid characters this year. He reminded me of Sy Ableman from the Coen Brothers much underrated classic A Serious Man, a man who will wreck your life in the nicest and most polite way possible (some similarities were also drawn to the character of Bill Lumbergh in the brilliant 1999 comedy Office Space). You love to hate Trent. In one particularly unbelievable scene he asks Duncan how much he would rate himself out of ten, and then proceeds to tell him he’d rate Duncan “a three”. I laughed out loud, but a part of my brain was utterly speechless, and there is pause as the director’s allow the audience to take in this most nasty and awful of characters. This is endlessly compared and contrasted to Sam Rockwell’s character Owen, who is so fun loving and warm that he meets Duncan by an arcade game in a restaurant, and gives him a job the next day. Although he is dangerously irresponsible, he provides much of the comic relief, and his exchange of words with Trent late on are an absolute joy to behold. One complaint of The Way, Way Back could be that the audience never really has any morality issues; the directors make it crystal clear who to root for and who to hate at every turn. Although this can make things seem quite linear, the characters felt so fresh and so alive, that I knew if they were real people I would feel the same way without a director holding my hand and telling me how to think. The actors are so good they almost become the characters on screen.
Seeing Steve Carell really take a break from such brazen comedy (Anchorman, Evan Almighty etc.) and portray such an inherently nasty and dislikable character is such a refreshing move for his career, and just like his performance in Little Miss Sunshine, he shows he really does have serious talent for serious acting.
Due to the refreshing viewpoint of the film, which only really fully characterizes Duncan as we see the world from his point of view, this does lead to some characters being quite two dimensional and you have to wonder whether some of the people portrayed are being judged fairly by both the directors and Duncan himself.
The Way, Way Back is 2013’s most warm and charming film so far, and will delight anyone who goes to see it. It is fresh, moving and seriously funny, and juggles its overlapping themes so seamlessly that you get drawn into Duncan’s world. It technically isn’t one of the best films of the year, but it certainly is one of my favourites, and will be relatable to anyone who was/is an awkward teenager. Filmmaking is rarely as touching or as true as The Way, Way Back; and it has something truly special about it. A late summer treat.