One coming-of-age drama isn’t necessarily anything special. Two coming-of-age dramas released within months of each other is coincidence. But three or more coming-of-age dramas coming out within half a year of each other? Now we’ve got a trend that merits closer investigation.
In this case, I refer to Mud, The Kings of Summer, and today’s film, The Way, Way Back. I suppose you could also count the second half of The Place Beyond the Pines, and we’ve got The To-Do List coming out in a couple of weeks. All of those films were 2013 releases, and we’re not even done with July yet. What’s going on here? Why are filmmakers suddenly so fascinated with the process of teens learning how to grow up?
On the one hand, I’d be inclined to pin this on the aftermath of Harry Potter/Twilight mania. Those now-defunct phenomena have long since proven kids and teens to be a powerful force at the box office, after all. Studios would naturally be eager to keep their interest in any possible way, even if it means bringing the adolescent angst without the paranormal angle. This might explain last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another teen drama based on a bestselling book.
Then again, the films I’ve listed were more like indie/arthouse releases, made with minimal star power and given very little marketing clout. Additionally, the studios seem more interested in adapting other supernatural YA romances. They’re going so far as to try and revive the Percy Jackson film franchise, for God’s sake.
No, there’s something else going on here as well. Some bigger, more cultural thing that draws filmmakers and audiences toward this shared topic. Personally, I’m guessing that it comes back (as it always does) to growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. It’s like the filmmakers are trying to reach out to today’s adolescence and say “It’s too late for us, but you’ve still got time to change the world! Go forth, blaze your own trail, and be better than those who came before you!” Then again, it might also be our constant nostalgia for a simpler time, back when we didn’t realize just how much harder things would get after high school.
This brings me to The Way, Way Back, in which the theme of nostalgia is made overt. See, a huge chunk of the film takes place in an East Wareham water park called Water Wizz. We’re told that the park was built in 1983, and the founder’s dying wish was for the park stay exactly as it is for all time. Then again, it bears remembering that the story comes from Sam Rockwell’s character, so it could all be total bullshit. But I’m getting way, way ahead of myself.
Our teenage protagonist is Duncan (Liam James), whose parents divorced a few years ago. His dad is presently living in San Diego with a much younger girlfriend. His mom (Pam, played by Toni Collette) has spent the past few months dating Trent (Steve Carrell), who has a daughter of his own (Steph, played by Zoe Levin). In an effort at spending some quality time as a “family,” Trent and Pam drag their progeny to Trent’s beach house.
Things go downhill from there.
To start with, Trent is kind of a douche. It’s obvious that the guy means well, trying to be a good surrogate father and role model for Duncan, but he goes about it in the most obliviously dickish way possible. To wit: When we first meet Trent, he’s trying to encourage Duncan to be more confident and socially forward. How does he do this? By telling Duncan “On a scale of one to ten, I think you’re a three.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s how it happens.
(Fun fact: Co-writer Jim Rash claimed in an interview that this conversation actually happened, word for word, between him and his own stepfather.)
Steph is even less helpful. The girl is way too obsessed with her own social standing to worry about some mopey loser she has to babysit. As for Pam, she’s just weak. She genuinely cares about Duncan, but she’s far more worried about making her relationship with Trent work.
Basically put, Duncan is withdrawn because no one — Duncan himself, least of all — seems to have any idea of what to do with him. Nobody knows what he wants, nobody knows what he’s capable of, and nobody wants anything to do with him. The guy is stuck in a world he has no place in, so Duncan just does as he’s told, drifting through the scenes like a cardboard cutout.
Then we have Trent’s neighbors. Betty (Allison Janney), the next door neighbor, is a shrill and alcoholic nincompoop with a crude sense of humor and no regard for anyone’s personal space. Naturally, she doesn’t make things any more comfortable for Duncan. In fact, she tends to make people feel uncomfortable in general. The other neighbors worth mention are a married couple, played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Kip and Joan are a couple of stoners who go out with Trent and Pam so they can all do God-knows-what in the middle of the night.
Last but not least, there are Betty’s three kids. One of them is so irrelevant I won’t even bother mentioning him. The second one is Peter (River Alexander), a kid who’s put-upon because of his lazy eye. The most important one is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the love interest. I’ll get back to them later.
Things progress in a slow and awkward manner through the first half-hour until Duncan finally makes his way to Water Wizz. He’s soon befriended by Owen, the park’s owner and manager, played by Sam Rockwell. The park is also attended by the perverted Roddy and the neurotic Lewis (respectively played by co-writers/co-directors/co-exec-producers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, fresh off their Oscar win for The Descendants), as well as the more responsible Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). By and by, Owen offers Duncan a summer job at the water park. Duncan, eager to find a more friendly place where his family can’t reach him, accepts.
From here, I feel compelled to stay on the subject of Sam Rockwell. This guy is the beating heart of the movie. The film doesn’t get going until he shows up, and the movie visibly deflates when he’s out of the scene. He does a masterful job of playing a fast-talking bullshit artist, but Rockwell is also good enough to bring some nuance to the role. It’s easy to write Owen off as an irresponsible goofball at first, but we eventually see that Owen has a masterful intuition with people. He knows exactly what people need and what people want. And most of the time, it turns out, people just need to laugh.
So Owen makes people laugh. Brother, does he make people laugh. Every single line out of Rockwell’s mouth left me in stitches. If George Clooney could get an Oscar nod for The Descendants, then I sincerely hope that Rockwell gets an Oscar nod for this. Then again, considering how well his career has been going lately, Rockwell is probably due for an Oscar nod any time now.
Faxon’s character is a little more one-note, but he still gets a few laughs. Jim Rash is of course hilarious. Allison Janney’s character might have been wretched, but Janney is having such a good time that she succeeds in making her character funny. There’s also Peter, who turns out to be a surprising source of comic relief later in the film.
The bottom line is this: This movie shows the same kind of heartfelt comedy that won The Descendants a screenwriting Oscar. As a comedy, the movie totally works. Alas, the rest of the film doesn’t fare nearly as well.
So many of the film’s problems root back to Liam James, who has absolutely zero screen presence. That’s a great asset for a character who’s supposed to be an awkward misfit, but it’s terrible when the time comes to show the character’s development. When Duncan is supposed to be coming out of his shell and growing as a person, James simply doesn’t sell it. Then again, it’s not like the script does him any favors. Most of Duncan’s big turning points are either implausible (the break dancing scene) or entirely off-camera (the motherfucking climax!).
On a similar note, we have the romance arc. Susanna is also the child of divorced parents, and she shares Duncan’s resentment toward the brain-dead people around her. The two have a lot in common, but they’re both so awkward that any attempt at a relationship is slow going. That’s great to begin with, but the film never really shifts the arc into a higher gear. The storyline is stuck grinding its wheels because Duncan never gets any easier to talk with.
AnnaSophia Robb is a very promising young talent, and she’s clearly trying her hardest, but there’s only so much she can do when she’s more or less acting against a brick wall. Susanna’s conversations with Duncan are so one-sided that it begs the question of why she’s even bothering with him. She keeps on pursuing Duncan even though she has no reason to, which completely flattens the characters’ chemistry. To sum up, FAIL.
Then we have Trent. On the one hand, I appreciate that Steve Carell is playing a character who’s totally removed from his usual oafish role. I completely respect Carell for doing such a solid job with a more ambiguous character who isn’t necessarily comedic by nature.
On the other hand, the character may have been treated with a little too much ambiguity for the movie’s own good. We see Trent engaging in some awful acts of douchebaggery, and Duncan is good enough to finally call him out on it, but the film botches the landing when it comes to seeing how Trent has changed. Specifically, we never find out. The guy starts out as a well-intentioned asshole, and for all that I could tell, he ends as a well-intentioned asshole. Or maybe he’s sincere when he’s going to straighten out. I don’t know. We never learn how things have changed within this weird little family, or if anything has changed at all.
This problem infects other members of the cast as well. Steph, for example, seems to have absolutely no reaction or opinion to her dad’s transgressions. The guy’s stepson has this huge public outburst while his own flesh-and-blood daughter has nothing. That’s another pretty big failure, in my opinion.
Similarly, we have Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. The latter’s character, Joan, is directly accused of assisting Trent in his immorality, and all we get is a shot of her sipping from a drink like nothing just happened. From her goddamned husband, we don’t even get that much. Basically put, these two actors aren’t playing characters so much as they’re playing plot devices.
Getting back to Owen’s side of the movie, there’s a very clear weak link to be found in Caitlin. I absolutely get why her character was in this movie, as the film was in need of a sensible foil to Owen’s particular brand of madness. Unfortunately, the film went and threw in a potential romance arc for them. That was incredibly stupid. In execution, this romance arc turns out to be so half-assed and inconsequential that it really should have been cut altogether.
The bottom line is that The Way, Way Back works as a comedy and fails as a coming-of-age drama. The central character arc is too slowly-paced, too thinly-plotted, and too wishy-washy in its themes to really be effective. I appreciate the effort, but the end result is still a mediocrity. Then again, Sam Rockwell’s performance is worth a recommendation in itself. When this movie gets around to telling jokes — either through Rockwell, Janney, or any of the water park antics — it’s pretty much always a hoot.
Give this one a rental if you’re curious, but it’s not something I would go out of my way for.