'Way, Way Back' makes a refreshing summer splash
05:00 AM, Jul 05, 2013
The Way, Way Back (***½ out of four; rated PG-13, opening Friday in select cities) is the ideal low-key antidote to high-octane blockbuster fatigue.
With its subtle wit, engaging story, topnotch ensemble cast and sparkling dialogue, it’s this summer’s Little Miss Sunshine.
This charming and intermittently poignant coming-of-age story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who takes what initially appears to be the summer vacation from hell with his oblivious mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her obnoxious boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s snippy daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan is visibly uncomfortable in his adolescent skin and Trent does nothing to make it better. In fact, he seizes on it and pounces.
The movie opens with Duncan in the back seat while Trent drives and goads the shy boy into giving himself a rating from 1 to 10. When Duncan tries to dodge the question, Trent bullies him into answering.
“Pick any number,” Trent says. “How do you see yourself? Just shout it out.”
Duncan grudgingly mumbles “A 6?”
The overbearing Trent cuts him down with: “I think you’re a 3.”
Instantly, we’re rooting for Duncan and hating the loathsome Trent.
Duncan and Pam are joining Trent and Steph for a summer vacation at his beach house. Duncan looks miserable about it until he takes off on a small, rickety pink bike and lands a job at a water park. He makes an unlikely friend in the wisecracking Owen (Sam Rockwell), the erstwhile manager of Water Wizz park. Duncan slowly gains confidence as he finds purpose on the job. Rockwell gives one of his most sympathetic and funny performances.
The adults in this movie are more immature than the kids.
There’s the heavy-drinking, inappropriate and very funny neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), whose saving grace is her wryly humorous teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who understand Duncan’s angst. When Betty first spots Duncan she cries out: “Who’s this in all his awkward-stage glory?”
As Duncan, James nails the introverted character who grows increasingly endearing over the course of the film.
The story is never cloying, though it does teeter on the “summer I’ll never forget” trope. However, it transcends the pitfalls of that convention, coming across as authentic and winning.
Duncan can see that his mother has made a terrible match with Trent and things come to a head at a Fourth of July party when he confronts Trent, then tells his mom he’d like to go stay with his father. When Trent lashes back in front of everyone that his dad doesn’t want him, it’s as if he slugged the boy. We can feel his pain.
Later, Duncan is able to choke out his hurt to Owen. “He called me a 3. Who says that to somebody?”
Owen has a ready answer, which may explain his own struggles with immaturity: “That’s about him, all about him. My dad was the same way.”
Ironically, Owen is a better father figure than anyone else in Duncan’s life.
There are no grand resolutions or sweeping changes by the film’s conclusion which is what makes it seem all the more honest and realistic. But there is a sense of hope.
We sense that Duncan will learn to cope with his troubled adolescence and find a way to make the most of his awkward-stage glory.