Editor’s note: yes, this post is way, way overdue (see what I did there?), but no matter. I still have things to say about the movie, and as we’ve previously established, it’s my party and I’ll post if I want to, post if I want to, post if I waaaaaant to.
I think one of the reasons I appreciated The Way Way Back was because I didn’t quite know what to expect going into it. As it goes with expectations, those not elevated are easier to exceed.
Another one of the many Sundance hits I didn’t see while I was actually at Sundance, The Way Way Back is co-written and directed by the guys who wrote The Descendants, and lemme tell ya, they can write. As I ponder more and more the writing I want to explore in the very near future, I feel like I’m watching films like this one both as a fan and a student. Crisp in character and without a single extraneous line, it’s the story of a painfully awkward kid on a summer vacation with his mom, her boyfriend and his daughter. As summer vacations often are for 14 year olds in movies, Duncan’s ends up being quite transformative.
There is really nothing terribly groundbreaking about The Way Way Back – it’s a familiar structure, familiar characters – and yet, I was completely won over by it. Cynics will say it’s simplistic, predictable. Pshaw, I say. It’s the kind of film you feel better for having seen, in the exact opposite Hallmark-y way that made it sound. From a cast that couldn’t be more perfect if they tried to a soundtrack I immediately looked up and saved to my Spotify, I am, weeks later, still thinking about how enjoyable it was.
Liam James is Duncan, the kid who’s clearly uncomfortable his own skin; Toni Collette, his mom Pam, still relishing her good luck to have found a guy like Trent, a wonderfully dickish Steve Carrell. Allison Janney winningly channels every over-bearing, over-drinking older woman you’ve ever met, while Sam Rockwell steals the show as the charming slacker waterpark owner in whom Duncan discovers an unlikely kindred spirit. Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, (a very grown up) Annasophia Robb, and writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash round out the clever cast of characters.
This is Duncan’s story, of course, and watching this socially awkward, unhappy kid interact with damaged grown-ups and the peers he doesn’t quite understand is equally heartbreaking and enthralling. We’re watching him cross that wobbly bridge every kid walks, gaining just enough insight into adult relationships to realize they’re complicated, hurtful and blurry more often than not. And yet, in the course of 90 or so minutes, we see him completely outgrow the shell he arrives at the beach in, the kind of good-guy-wins-in-the-end story everybody can cheer for.
Paired with a fantastic soundtrack book-ended by Edie Brickell tracks (listen below!), The Way Way Back had me equal parts impressed, nostalgic and jealous. Impressed a story so uncontrived if not downright obvious could be so touching. Nostalgic for my own summers at camp, drives spent sitting in the way way back. And jealous of the creative energy that built the whole thing, wishing I could blink my eyes and be a part of a project like that.
We’re barely half-way through the year, but I’m gonna go ahead and say The Way Way Back is one of my personal favorites. Not a powerhouse awards contender or even one that will make any shortlists. No matter – it’s on mine.