Summertime — there’s no season more influential in a young person’s coming of age. Being out of school means a chance for a new experiences and self-discovery, and spending that time in a new location always feels like a fresh start. In “The Way Way Back,” Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Descendants”) portray the “life-changing summer” in a sincere way, but they also capture the nostalgia and fairy tale-like qualities with which we often remember these times in our lives.
It starts and ends with Duncan (Liam James). Too many characters in independent films are written like Duncan, the socially challenged kid who discovers himself with the help of some quirky role models and a beautiful girl, but James actually looks and acts the part, compared to the many protagonists we usually see in these films. He’s quiet, closed off and doesn’t stick up for himself, but he’s more than the product of a the unlikable supporting characters jerking him around and most importantly, James is actually close to the same age as Duncan (a 16-year-old playing a 14-year-old), which so many coming-of-age characters aren’t.
Duncan is going for a long summer vacation to the Massachusetts shore with his mom (Toni Collette) and her serious boyfriend (Steve Carell), Trent, who tries to impose rules on him while taking shots at his self-confidence. Along with Trent’s superficial and self-absorbed daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), they stay at Trent’s beach house, which clearly is meant to be a getaway for Trent and Duncan’s mom, who spend their days and nights there drinking and socializing with Trent’s neighbors (Allison Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry). Clearly miserable, Duncan endeavors to get away, and in doing so discovers Water Wizz water park and its carefree owner/operator, Owen (Sam Rockwell).
Water Wizz is like an entirely different world, a Neverland of sorts where growing up doesn’t require growing pains, where life’s unfairness doesn’t apply; a place where Duncan can find himself in the middle of a break dancing circle and earn the nickname “Pop-‘n-Lock.” There’s a huge difference between the way the script treats scenes at the beach house, where Duncan can’t be himself, and scenes at the water park. Rockwell’s Owen is by no means a paragon of self-made success, but there’s something about his attitude toward life and that of the other park employees played by Maya Rudolph, Rash and Faxon that’s infectious.
The family drama away from Duncan’s chlorinated safe haven, on the other hand, can get heavy and real. It is full of unhappy characters trying to force themselves into happiness and being inauthentic with themselves and each other. That’s why Duncan can’t stand it, especially when it becomes clear that Trent and his mother don’t have the healthiest of relationships. As the story unfolds, the divide between Duncan’s worlds grows so large that he can’t straddle them any longer.
And what would this story be without a little romance? Janney’s Betty, who lives next to Trent’s beach house, has a teenage daughter named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who takes a curious shining to Duncan, presumably because her friends, which include Trent’s daughter Steph, are also superficial. Of course Susanna is the kind of knockout that guys like Duncan dream about landing but rarely do, so their relationship is part of that nostalgic coming-of- age fantasy. Faxon and Rash clearly aren’t aiming for 100 percent realism, just 100 percent genuineness of emotion.
Something about “The Way Way Back” so easily provokes the fond recollection of summers past. It taps into the feelings, emotions and nerve endings of those formative experiences and the role models that profoundly impact our lives. It has to be the honest, reflective writing and the telling of a story that has a lot of universal touch-points and therefore really resonates.
Casting actors who have perfected the dance between drama and comedy proves immensely important as well. Carell, Collette, Janney (practically a poster woman for independent comedy), Rockwell — they know how to operate in these stories and they know how to make humorous dialogue feel true to their characters. The script pushes for humor in spots, so talents like these help keep everything real.
Everyone should be able to find some kind of connection to “The Way Way Back,” and that will keep it from getting lost in coming-of-age indie comedy obscurity. Faxon and Rash are two- for-two and whatever they’ve got in store next has to be considered a must-watch.
The Way Way Back
Written and Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb