Published Jul 04, 2013During the opening moments of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's (the writing team behind Alexander Payne's, The Descendants) directorial debut, The Way, Way Back, Trent (Steve Carell) asks his girlfriend's son, Duncan (Liam James), to rate himself out of ten. Already reluctantly stuck in the back seat of a car traveling to Trent's cottage for the summer, he's hesitant to respond and tries to avoid giving a straight answer, knowing it will inevitably lead to the sort of criticism and emotional abuse he's grown accustomed to.
Trent persists, leaving Duncan to eventually say, "I dunno; a six," which, of course, leads to the backhanded comment, "Really? I see you as a three."
The 14-year-old Duncan is painfully shy; he takes the punches Trent and daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) throw at him without complaint. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is similarly diffident, ignoring her boyfriend's tendency to dominate a situation and rigidly adhere to rules and social expectations, mocking difference to defend his ego and corresponding solipsism.
Pam's acquiescence to an emotionally abusive relationship is, for the most part, a looming reality in Duncan's periphery. Around it are an array of comical situations and idiosyncratic characters — drunken loudmouth neighbour Betty (Allison Janney) and local couple Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry) — ensuring that the core theme of overcoming intense insecurities and inadvertently positing the self as a punching bag for the assimilative and unimaginative isn't too intense and depressing for viewers looking for lighter fare.
How Faxon and Rash capture our protagonist's awkwardness and inability to fit are played, in part, for comedy, despite having a rather harsh realness in its tenuousness and honestly considered inner-anxiety. When approached by his attractive neighbour, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), he's flabbergasted, not knowing how to handle being acknowledged and not possessing enough confidence to assert any sort of opinion or personality, being so used to hurt and rejection that every conversational avenue is merely a route back to humiliation. He stutters, agrees with everything she says and mutters something about the weather, which she mocks understandingly, herself being disenchanted by the idiocy of typical teen girls.
Her assistance, along with the energetic, free-spirited (and unrealistic) engagement of Water Wizz employee Owen (Sam Rockwell), helps Duncan get out of his shell a bit. Running off to the water park each day, where Owen tells him hyperbolic, oft-scatological tales and gives him tips on talking to, and attracting, women — most of which are ridiculous — he acts as the ersatz father figure Duncan needs.
Their relationship, much like the heartache of Duncan finally confronting his mother about her passive approach to life, is given heightened emotional appeal by the "end of summer" template, which plays in a coming-of-age capacity. While the summer is coming to its conclusion, along with the many deep relationships forged, this awkward and insecure boy learns to stand up for himself, leaving a difficult chapter in life behind.
However, while it's extremely moving and cathartic to see this well-considered, very smartly written boy find people that understand him and can help, there's also a lingering sense of contrivance. In the real world, people like Duncan don't usually find an Owen to help them along; instead, they confront an endless array of Trents and eventually give up on people altogether.
Fortunately, movies like The Way, Way Back exist to remind those that don't adhere to the rules and compromise themselves to fit into insanely limited social constraints that they're not alone, which is how this thematically heavy comedy manages to transcend its format.
For every narrative convenience and unlikelihood, there's a healthy dose of sincerity and unflinching honesty packing a very aggressive emotional punch. (Fox)