“The Way Way Back” Movie Review

     Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are clearly invested in their new film “The Way Way Back”, not only because it is their feature debut, but both play important characters in a screenplay they penned as well.  No slouches on the screenwriting front, having won an  Oscar for “The Descendants”, Faxon and Rash have crafted a coming of age story that is at times funny, but also heart felt at just the right moments.  Many have been in the position of practically every character in the film, which allows the audience to relate to the subject matter in a more satisfying multi layered fashion.  The resulting experience not only took me back to my own childhood, but also touched on issues nearly every adult in America has dealt with at one time or another, a wretched divorce.

     When we are first introduced to Duncan (Liam James), a 14 year old who lacks in confidence and the ability to express himself, he’s faced with a rather harsh question from his mother’s boyfriend of a year, Trent (Steve Carell), as to how he rates himself as a person.  The question is asked in a manner that is clearly loaded with a preconceived notion and Duncan senses this but answers anyway, only to find out the inevitable lowly answer from Trent himself.  Duncan doesn’t know how to go about answering the question and simply crawls into the shell of his head phones and iPod.  This scene is very telling of what’s to come, though you can see both sides of the argument.  The bottom line is kids are a difficult nut to crack and the introduction of new boyfriends and girlfriends into a kid’s life can make avoiding the kinds of situations depicted in this film nearly impossible.

     Trent is obviously a successful man in some capacity.  He is taking his girlfriend, Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan, and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin) to his Hampton beach house for the summer.  I don’t know of many people who can afford to take the summer off and hang out at their “beach house” for three months so I think we can assume Trent is in control of his financial and professional life.  It’s no surprise that Trent is immediately portrayed as the typical alpha male who intends on attempting to create the perfect family summer vacation. He clearly has an idea of what he wants his new family to look like and ensures this with a pointed dialogue delivered with a calm demeanor. When the group arrives, we realize immediately Trent has been there many times before, as he is greeted by several characters who will prove to be hilarious scene stealers throughout the story.  This is especially true of Betty (Allison Janney) and her son, Peter (River Alexander), whom she constantly pokes fun at because of his lazy eye and reluctance to cover it with an eye patch.

     It becomes inherently obvious that Duncan does not approve of his mother dating Trent and doesn’t want to be at his beach house either.  He seems unhappy with the fact his mother favors Trent in key social situations over him and doesn’t take to Trent’s domineering style either.  In effect, he basically sees his mother as weak and longs to be with a father who has moved to San Diego from New York and has promised Duncan a chance to stay with him once he gets settled.  No doubt a tough situation for any child to endure, but it’s also difficult as an adult to feel sorry for a kid who is spending the summer in a first class beach house and eating lobster for dinner.  Let that sink in for a minute.  A beach house and lobster and this kid is complaining about it! What a tough life he must endure!

     Duncan ultimately decides to withdraw and take a bicycle ride  to explore the area.  During a chance game of Pacman in a local pizza place, he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who immediately appeals to him with his undisciplined, no rules life and personality.  This leads Duncan to “Water Wizz”, a summer water park where Owen works as the manager.  What follows is the opportunity for Duncan to discover himself by way of both Owen’s mentorship and the confidence gained from being a part of something he excels at.  As the manager of the park, Owen has everything to gain by guiding Duncan through his difficulties and nothing to lose.  The guy is not a parent and he himself is shown struggling with even the beginning stages of a relationship with one of his co-workers.  The guy is kind of an odd ball and I think he likely sees himself in Duncan, using the situation to help Duncan do what perhaps he couldn’t at the same age.  By the end of the film, I wondered if Duncan would’ve felt the same about Owen had he been the one dating his mother.  Bottom line, Duncan longed for the affection of his father and I doubt in the end Owen would’ve been any better of a replacement than Trent.

     The scenes at “Water Wizz” are greatly supported by the aforementioned writer/directors with their turns as Lewis (Rash) and Roddy (Faxon).  Both are the kind of characters that Adam Sandler used to be supported by regularly in his early films, but seems incapable of duplicating today.  In addition, SNL vet Maya Rudolph plays Owen’s would be love interest, rounding out the water park cast nicely.  Along with Janney’s Betty character, Rob Corddry (Kip) and Amanda Peet (Joan) join the fun at social gatherings at Trent’s beach house.  Rash and Faxon have populated their story with loads of interesting and funny characters and more importantly, give each the chance to shine with key moments on screen.  The writing here is again Oscar worthy in my opinion.  It also helps the cast and their performances are impeccable top to bottom.

     I don’t think Rash and Faxon set out to give us answers on how to handle situations that entail the mixing of families and improving the self confidence of teenagers, rather I believe they’re simply putting it out there and telling it like it is (It’s not easy.).  The best stories and, consequently, the best films are those that explore important issues in our lives and remind us that we are never perfect.  “The Way Way Back” shows us we are all different and getting along isn’t necessarily always a given.  This isn’t necessarily “Kramer vs Kramer” or “Blue Valentine” despair, but despite it’s comedic tone, the point comes through loud and clear.  Divorce is ugly and effects in more ways than any of us ever realize.  I’m quite sure each character in this film would agree.  GRADE: A