Every summer has that one movie release that is a sweet and poignant alternative to the slick, over-produced blockbusters that flood the cinemas. Last summer it was Moonrise Kingdom, this summer it's The Way Way Back.
I loved The Way Way Back. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, that I can't think of a 2013 release that has been a better movie.
The Way Way Back is the story of Duncan, a quiet and sensitive teenager, who is spending the summer at his mother's new boyfriend's beach house. The tone is set immediately at the start of the movie with an uncomfortable conversation between Duncan and the boyfriend while they drive to the beach house. The boyfriend takes the opportunity to belittle Duncan under the guise of being a caring adult, as Duncan's mother and the boyfriend's daughter sleep in the car, completely unaware of the tense conversation.
Steve Carell plays the boyfriend, Trent and he is truly a despicable character. Trent takes every opportunity to belittle and bully Duncan. Trent is envious of the close relationship that his girlfriend, Pam has with her son and that he lacks with his own shallow daughter, Steph.
Duncan withdraws from the situation and find solace at the local water park, Water Wizz. Owen, the fun-loving owner of Water Wizz, recognizes that Duncan is having problems and offers him both a job and friendship. Owen steps up to the plate and acts like an older brother to Duncan, giving him much needed adult guidance and concern.
The movie is billed as a comedy and although it has some funny moments, it's definitely a drama. The story deals with weighty issues such as divorce, child abandonment, infidelity, alcoholism and generally what it means to be a grown-up.
A majority of the adults in the movie are so involved with their own problems, that they don't realize that they are setting a very poor example for the next generation. The kids in the movie are teenagers and the parents have shifted their priorities away from parenting, leaving the kids to finish growing up on their own. One of the kids in the movie mentions that spending the summer by the beach is a bit like spring break for the adults, giving them the excuse to misbehave.
One particular poignant conversation involves Duncan and his older girl crush, Susanna. Susanna is telling the Duncan about catching Ghost Crabs on the beach. The story about the crabs and how they can see everything around them, except up is a good parallel to the adults in the movie. They can't see that their children watch and absorb everything. The adults are so singularly focused on their own lives, that they don't realize that their actions have direct consequences for their children. Some of the teenagers, such as Trent's daughter, have already begun to mimic the bad examples set forth by the adults. The problems roll into the next generation.
The movie has hope though, as some of the adults realize the impact they have on the kids. Owen is basically a good guy, but prior to his interactions with Duncan, he shirks his responsibilities and pushes away the one woman who is good for him, fellow Water Wizz employee, Caitlin. He doesn't want to grow up. It's subtle, but throughout the movie, you see a shift in Owen and it's easy to root for him to change.
Aside from having a story that is filled with great dialogue and rich subtext, the movie has a fantastic cast. This movie is an ensemble piece, with Liam James as Duncan at the heart of it.
I fell in love with Sam Rockwell as Owen. Having spent many years working at a theme park, I can verify that all of the types of Water Wizz employees rang true. I loved Maya Rudolph as Caitlin, the Water Wizz employee who only intended to work the job for one summer. I get that! Toni Collette as Duncan's mom was perfect. I just wanted to shake her character. AnnaSophia Robb was great as the daughter of a raging alcoholic, played by Allison Janney, in a cringe worthy, scene stealing role. I never thought Steve Carell could carry off such a horrible character, but he did and was well cast.
I hope that this little movie is remembered when awards season rolls around. The Way Way Back is really that good!