Put away your popcorn, forget robots and superheroes, and don’t look for any guns or explosions, the best film of the summer is here. “The Way,Way Back” is a basic story that relies on understanding a character and developing an emotional connection to that character. That the film takes place in the summertime is a bonus that will make this a perennial must watch in the month of July for years to come. It will not replace “Jaws” as the go to July Fourth movie at our house, but a couple weeks later, when the summer season is settling in, I will be bugging everyone to sit down and watch this as a family. The film is not overly dramatic and it is not hysterical either, it is just real enough to touch you and make you remember those awkward moments in your own life. It is nostalgic without the trappings of visiting another era.
Duncan is a 14 year old kid, trapped in a family nightmare and only able to see the world as it sucks. He has every right to. His parents are divorced, his Dad is not present in his life and his Mom has found an unsuitable partner to fill the void in their lives. Trent is not the worst human being ever, but he is the worst for Duncan at this point in his life. Steve Carell plays the new boyfriend as a little self righteous and weak at the same time. Toni Collette is Duncan’s uncertain and awkward Mother, a part she has grown into pretty well over the years. It is not until the end of the film that we begin to understand her at all. Yet, these are not the main characters of the story. The film focuses on Duncan and the way in which he is having to adapt to seeing the world from a different perspective.
The two different paradigm shifting relationships in the movie are the cute girl next door and an inappropriate but ultimately essential mentor figure that he attaches himself to. Liam James plays the overwhelmed young Duncan. He gets the suppressed anger and the awkward small humiliations just right. One of the reasons he works so well in the movie is that he is stingy with his smile. It does not come easily and it never seems to arrive at the moment we expect it. Part of the reason it is difficult for Duncan to relate is that he has not found a complementary force in his life yet. Mom can’t provide it for the moment. Trent does not fit at all and girls are a mystery that are slightly beyond his reach at this stage of life. Lucky for him, and for us as the viewers, Owen drops into his life.
Owen is a local, at the water park near Trent’s summer home, where Duncan’s Mom has dragged him for the summer. Sussana, the cute, slightly older neighbor girl is potentially a friend but Duncan hasn’t learned how to communicate as an adult yet. Owen seems the least likely to be able to help him with those skills, since he is in arrested development himself and speaks mostly in jokes and asides that are hip but maybe not always appropriate. But Owen is older, and wiser than he cares to admit and he has one other special gift. Owen can feel the need that Duncan has to break out of his shell. Owen instinctively responds to Duncan, despite the fact that Duncan can barely get out a coherent sentence. Maybe he recognizes a younger self, or like a lot of partnerships, simply fits in because the other person is letting them. The friendship between a grown man and a 14 year old kid works in a non-creepy way.
OK, so far I have neglected to say that Owen is played by the amazing Sam Rockwell. Over the years, Rockwell has provided more enjoyment to me in movie theaters than could be measured. He has played serious and comedy roles and is willing to inject himself into a story in ways that are not always going to draw attention but do shore up the film. This film lets him do both. He electrifies the movie every time he shows up, but he doesn’t steal focus from the character of Duncan who is after all, the main point of what we are watching. Here is an easy way to describe it, Rockwell is a soda bottle full of charisma and energy and the story allows us to pop the top off and let the fizzy lifting goodness flow over us. It may seem in retrospect too contrived to work, but while watching the movie I never felt taken out of the story. The impact that Owen has on Duncan is actually subtle even if his character is not.
There are some dramatic fireworks but they do not exceed the situation that the characters are in. It never feels over the top. The story is populated with unpleasant characters, funny neighbors, thoughtless idiots and surprisingly deep and empathetic kids. It is a coming of age story for Duncan but also for his Mom and Owen as well. Younger viewers may not quite get the reference to the title because for more than twenty years now, automobiles with a third set of seats, have all had those seats facing the same direction. The old (or classic wagon as Trent sees it) station wagon that begins and ends this summer trip has a traditional rear facing seat. Kids traveling with their families in the old days often were on a completely different trip than everyone else because they look at the surroundings through a different perspective. That’s what happens here. Everyone gets to see the world from a different view, and it’s not all bad.