Jim Rash and Nat Faxon follow up their Academy Award winning script to The Descendants, with their directorial debut The Way, Way Back, a more even handed, funnier, and heartfelt effort than the heavily lauded Alexander Payne directed effort that made them sought after scribes. While it takes place in a similarly idyllic vacation destination for its entire running time, this Massachusetts set coming of age tale exposes its adult characters for the stunted adolescents they really are and asking for accountability. It’s deeply funny, as uncomfortable as a forced vacation with the worst members of your family, and one of the best films of the season.
14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) isn’t being dragged kicking and screaming to the coastal beach house of his mother’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), but the look on his face suggests he’s screaming on the inside. Trent doesn’t particularly approve of Duncan’s introverted attitude and treats him like a… well, unwanted stepchild, much to the obliviousness of his mom, Pam (Toni Collette). While Trent and Pam seem content to party all night with their good-time-buddies – next door neighbour and unapologetic alcoholic Betty (an uncouth and hilariously off the rails Allison Janney) and married couple Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), Duncan finds solace and a newfound sense of responsibility helping out at a two bit water park run by the sarcastic, sappy, motormouthed Owen (Sam Rockwell), and he starts a budding friendship/potential relationship with Betty’s equally nonplussed daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
Instead of just slapping together a story about growing up and learning important life lessons as a teenager under the least ideal conditions possible, Rash and Faxon (who also appear as two employees of the ludicrously named Water Wizz, a legitimately real destination in East Wareham, Massachusetts) make the adults just as vulnerable as the young man at the heart of it all. While James is the perfect actor to portray the calm in this storm of almost disheartening immaturity (and by that I don’t mean the particularly funny kind, but the sad, fall down drunk and delude yourself into thinking your life is peachy kind of way), he still has a lot to learn. This isn’t the summer where he gets the sagest of advice, but the one where he learns that a lot of the advice he’s given is terrible to listen to.
As the fake voice of authority that keeps putting Duncan down, Carell gives one of the best performances of his career. Trent wants nothing to do with Duncan, he selfishly sees the young man as a long term asset in the fight to stay with his mother and equally as a detriment to the one time of year he will actually allow himself to have fun. It’s such a realistic cad that it’s hard to believe Carell doesn’t get offers for these kinds of roles more often.
As his beleaguered mother, Collette also turns in some of her strongest work. Pam isn’t exactly a weak woman, but in her surroundings she regresses to that of a teenager; someone who gives in to peer pressure to look cool when she knows she shouldn’t, especially when she has a sullen teenager of her own to deal with.
Rockwell gets to have the fun role, and while it isn’t all that far removed from some of his more manic and comedic performances, the storyline involving him becoming Duncan’s de facto mentor adds a lot of heart and serves as a reminder why summer jobs for teenagers both suck and provide lasting memories. He also has some great comic talents to play off in the park, including Rash as probably the oldest staff member still around and Maya Rudolph as his right hand woman and unrequited crush.
Every line of Rash and Faxon’s dialogue pops with unforced banter, wit, and a sense of verisimilitude that most can only aspire for. It helps that they have a powerful cast, but without the material, the actors would be set adrift looking for situational context. It’s a film that metes out character traits in quiet moments and glances, punctuated by lines of dialogue that only seem to be irrelevant to their true motivations. Faxon and Rash make their script feel effortless. Even when it seems like one scene won’t seamlessly blend into the next, they make it seem effortless.
Rash and Faxon show that the hardest part of growing up isn’t necessarily the hormones or the peer pressure, but in dealing with other adults who can’t see young people as future equals. Then they hold a mirror up to white bread vacationers to show that growing up is a constant and perpetual process that some people never get a grasp on. The future looks bright for Duncan and several other characters that will probably be okay long after the credits roll, but some people are doomed to never learn from the choices they make. The Way, Way Back is evocative of the highs and lows that every summer vacation brings, and how frightening it can be to watch the people you idolize look like jackasses and how you can come to idolize the people who look like the biggest jackasses. It’s a work of great dexterity and a summertime classic in the waiting.