“The Way, Way Back” is a delightful, low-key summer comedy, not the kind of art designed to provoke much thought or raise questions.
By Noah Gittell
“The Way, Way Back” is a delightful, low-key summer comedy, not the kind of art designed to provoke much thought or raise questions. But as I sat in the theater letting it wash over me, one particular question kept coming back to me: why is Sam Rockwell not a bigger star?
Although you might not know the name, you have definitely seen his face. You might know him as the villain in “Charlie’s Angels” or the sadistic inmate in “The Green Mile.” I loved him in last year’s “Seven Psychopaths.” Rockwell is relegated to supporting roles in big Hollywood films, but he shines when given bigger opportunities. His role in “The Way, Way Back,” an intermittently hilarious and deeply sad coming-of-age story, seems tailor-made for him, and I hope it finally gets him the notice he so richly deserves. His character, Owen, is the fun-loving, kind-hearted, much older friend of the film’s teenage protagonist, so we basically spend the whole movie just hanging out with him. It’s time well spent.
The teenager in question is Duncan (Liam James), who has been brought to a small beach community for the summer to suffer at the hands of his clueless mother (Toni Colette), her jerk boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, surprisingly effective as a bad guy), and a cadre of his emotionally absent, irresponsible fortysomething neighbors. With trouble at home, he forges a new family at the local water park, Water Wizz, which appears to have been lifted from a ’80s summer comedy. There he finds a mentor, friend, and father figure in Owen, the park’s gleefully immature manager who seems to know all the right buttons to push in order to help Duncan grow up and have a great summer while he’s at it.
It’s not as clichéd as it sounds. Things may get a little too generic and romanticized at times – although the subtle cruelty Trent inflicts upon Duncan feels scarily specific – but that’s a forgivable flaw in a coming-of-age story because we all look back at our teenage years through sepia tones.
It also helps to have such a stellar cast, with even minor roles filled by actors who can make an impression. Colette’s sad single mom is, in some ways, the dark heart of the movie, and Carell is just excellent as the aging preppy dirtbag, a very different role than those we are used to seeing the funnyman in.
But Rockwell remains the standout, and his performance stands as a shining example of how good acting can elevate a script. On the page, Owen probably seems more like a hip fairy godfather than an actual person. He teaches Duncan to be a man and helps him get girls. Even his most irresponsible decisions – of which there are many – seem to pan out. Further, we learn virtually nothing of his backstory, with only hints that he, too, had a crappy father.
But who cares when you’re hanging with a guy who is this much fun? In between childish antics, Rockwell hints at a sadder inner life and betrays, in his eyes, a wisdom beyond his years. It’s an indelible performance, the kind that should be remembered at Oscar time but probably won’t be.
Which is not to say that “The Way, Way Back” is a perfect film, but its flaws are at least well-intentioned. The tonal shifts between levity and sadness are often jarring, and I can’t help but think that experienced filmmakers – Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are Oscar-winning writers but first-time directors – could have forged a more consistent feel. But this approach pays off at times, as spending ample time in the dark makes us even more grateful for the light. The characters are also drawn a bit too black-and-white. Owen, as we have already noted, is the mentor every troubled teenage boy ever wanted, and Trent is probably too much of a jerk to be realistic. But the world does seem black and white to a teenager: some guys seem like the epitome of cool, and some fathers just suck.
Despite these minor flaws, “The Way, Way Back” is an easy movie to recommend, especially in this season. With explosions, high body counts, and special effects, most summer movies seem designed to melt your face off. The best compliment I can give this film is that you’ll leave the theater with your face fully intact – and wearing a smile, no less. If memory serves, that’s what good summer movies are supposed to do.
My Rating: See it in the Theater