One of the most difficult things about trying to blend families is the tension between the children and parents. And the new movie The Way Way Back captures that in a touching and painful way.
The movie centers on Duncan (Liam James), an awkward teen who is spending the summer with his mom (Toni Collete), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin) at Trent's summer house on the New England Coast. Duncan has no friends and is the picture of isolation. On top of that, Trent continually tries to assert his fatherly authority over him. Duncan instantly becomes attracted to the neighbor girl Susanna (Annasophia Robb), but it is obvious that he has no experience talking to to girls. All in all, we see on screen the complete awkwardness of adolescence play out in a humorous and truthful way.
But the most poisonous and painful thing is the complete breakdown of maturity among the adults. Duncan's mom spends her days and nights with Trent and his friends acting like irresponsible teens. They freely get wasted, run off to the beach in the middle of the night, sneak off to be amorous, and even buy pot from on of their own children. As Susanna says, "It's like spring break for adults."
Without getting preachy, the movie shows how this childish attitude among parents is corrosive. It isn't even that they are giving their children bad examples. But we can see on Duncan's anguished expressions that as his mom loses herself, Duncan also loses any stability he has in his life. His world is drab and dark and full of angst.
That is why it is such a relief when Duncan finds himself at the Water Wizz Waterpark. Visually, the film pops and sparkles with vivid color. This place is a real oasis for Duncan, especially as he finds a friend and something-like-mentor in the devil-may-care, wise-cracking Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the water park. Owen seems like the first person to genuinely take and interest in him, even though Duncan does not make it easy as he hides under layers of awkwardness. But Owen takes him under his wing and Duncan finds a sense of community and identity during his days there.
And while Carrell is the headlining star, Rockwell owns this movie. He charms his way into your graces from his first moments on screen, so that you are as gravitationally drawn to him as Duncan. He obviously cares deeply about others, though he covers it with aloof humor. This is the most charismatic I have ever seen Rockwell and it is the most noxious that I have ever seen Carrell. Trent is a bully who sees Duncan as a rival to his mother's affections. Despite that, I could almost feel for Trent's dilemma of trying to be in the possible position of quasi-authority.
The thing I like best about Liam James' Duncan is how relatable he was. I could immediately see myself in his awkward shoes. He does a magnificent job of capturing the helplessness of his situation and his yearning for connection.
Thematically, there is great contrast between the immaturity of the parents and that of the adults at the water park. The parents act childish and relinquish their responsibilities to engage in illicit pleasures. They turn inward and selfish when they have the duty to seek after their own children first. The film captures this regressive attitude in our society in a very real way. The parents aren't simply held up for ridicule. Instead the movie simply shows you how that behavior emotionally impacts the children.
The adults at the water park are also juvenile. Owen is a constant prankster, but he is always trying to make everyone else feel better. He includes everyone he can into friendship with a child-like openness. There are times when he does devolve into irresponsibility, but he tries to do better. In that way, Owen is the most adult person Duncan's life.
Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written and directed a nice film. It feels alive and honest. How many of us as teens felt so alienated from everyone except our closest friends. Duncan cries to Owen about the water park "This is the only place I'm happy." The movie captures that innate human desire to know and be known. One of the most touching moments for me was when Duncan's mom finally begins to understand her son's life outside of the house, which she has completely missed because of her selfish hedonism.
There are many other layers and subplots to The Way Way Back, but it does not detract from the straightforward, clear narrative. It is a movie worth seeing.
4 out of 5 stars.