There are summer movies, and there are movies about summer. If the idea of catching one of the latter is beginning to take on new appeal as this year’s blockbuster “tentpoles” collapse like dominos around us, you couldn’t do better than Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s bracing take on the well-worn coming-of-age comedy genre, The Way, Way Back.
A pair of improv comics who learned their craft (and networked with a fair few of this flick’s sterling cast) as members of LA’s Groundlings troupe, Faxon and Rash snagged a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar last year, along with director Alexander Payne, for their work on The Descendants. Both are familiar TV faces, Rash for playing Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community and Faxon as the lead in Fox’s Ben and Kate. The Way, Way Back is their directorial debut, and their improv training translates swimmingly into its sparkling dialogue. (They’re also quite funny in minor roles as water park employees.)
Actually, “dialogue” is probably the wrong word. The movie’s two funniest characters (who, perhaps fortunately, never cross paths) are compulsive motormouths who seem to spew stream-of-consciousness monologues throughout most of their waking moments, while the soul of this tale belongs to a 14-year-old kid who barely utters a word throughout the first two acts of the narrative. Yet young Canadian actor Liam James, walking in the closest possible ambulatory approximation of a fetal position and constantly averting his eyes from life’s many reminders of his inadequacies, conveys absolutely everything that we need to know and then some about Duncan’s internal turmoil. James is astonishingly good and affecting in the movie’s central role. If you’ve ever loved (or been) a bullied child, you may want to bring a hankie along.
Pale, gloomy Duncan is being dragged against his will to spend the summer at a Cape Cod beach house belonging to Trent (Steve Carell), the controlling, hypercritical new boyfriend of his mother Pam (Toni Collette). The first time we see Trent and Duncan together, his prospective stepfather is asking the boy to rate himself on a scale of one to ten, and when Duncan reluctantly suggests six, Trent pegs him as a three. Their relationship just goes downhill from there.
But Pam, still shell-shocked and needy following her recent divorce from Duncan’s father, is desperately trying to give this new romance her best shot, blinding herself to the effect that Trent’s relentless put-downs are having on her son. And Trent’s slightly older daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) doesn’t even try to be subtle about the fact that she’s mortified to be seen in Duncan’s geeky company, quelling any parental hopes that the kids will hang out together at the beach.
Upon arrival at the summer cottage, Duncan is immediately plunged into the company of the most excruciatingly embarrassing assortment of adults ever to make a teenager’s life a total nightmare. Drink in hand, next-door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) swoops down on them with a torrent of hilariously inappropriate verbal and sartorial self-revelation, trumpeting the sort of blatant sexuality that in a fortyish woman makes a teenage boy want to crawl under the nearest rock. Insecure Pam gets quickly swept up in a social whirl of drunken partying with a couple of Trent’s friends who own a sailboat, Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), and Betty invites herself along whether she’s wanted or not.
Betty has a lissome daughter a couple of years older than Duncan named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who’s looking forward to as miserable a summer as her new neighbor; but Duncan is too awkward to know what to do with her tentative overtures of friendship. He drags an old girls’ bike out of storage and uses it to spend longer and longer times out of the company of the insufferable grownups. On one of these expeditions he discovers his haven of refuge: a somewhat down-at-heels water park called Water Wizz. And it’s while lurking around the park that he catches the sympathetic eye of its silver-tongued skiver of a manager, Owen, who doesn’t like rules because he once had a father much like Trent.
Owen is the perfect role for Sam Rockwell, and he turns him into such a charmingly laid-back, endlessly speed-rapping antihero that I’ve finally quite forgiven him for the mess that he made of Zaphod Beeblebrox in the movie version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Behind the mask of Owen’s stream of ironic quips and black-humored philosophizing is clearly an intelligent young man who never quite reached his potential, stuck for life in a cheesy tourist trap. But he also has a genius for making Water Wizz a chaotically zany place where even the employees, almost against their will, can’t help having fun and forming meaningful bonds. His way of being sensitive about the personal issues that most embarrass kids is to shout them through a loudspeaker and take them to such a level of sophomoric absurdity that the kid just has to laugh. The directors wisely cast the wonderful-but-not-conventionally-pretty Maya Rudolph as Caitlin, Owen’s hesitant love interest on the park staff; his goofy, persistent pursuit of her adds an unexpected depth to his boy/man character.
Before he knows it — and unbeknownst to his dysfunctional blended family — Duncan has been recruited into a summer job at the water park, where he discovers a sense both of mastery of various unexpected skills and of being appreciated by a supportive fraternity of quasi-adults. He actually begins to talk to Susanna, and somehow finds the chutzpah to insist that Pam open her eyes to the fact that Trent and Joan are more than friends. How that all works itself out, and how bonding with Owen enables Duncan to bridge his alienation from his wounded mother, is the matter of the third act of this fast-paced, witty and amusing but also emotionally engrossing bit of summery cinema.
Certainly, we’ve seen stories like this on the big screen before, but the sharp writing, snappy direction and fine performances make The Way, Way Back much more than a mere bagatelle. For all its ‘80s-retro look and soundtrack, it never wallows in nostalgia about adolescence — if anything, it makes the early teen years seem every bit as vividly hellish as many of us remember them. And thankfully, it doesn’t wrap things up with a pat, happily-ever-after ending. But there is some offering of hope, and the knowledge that, with a little help from one’s friends, life can indeed get better.
So grab your favorite teenaged person, and make sure that he or she sees this movie posthaste. On a scale of ten, I’d give it at least an eight.