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The Way Way Back Review: A Boy, a Girl and the Water Wizz
The Way Way Back is the story of Duncan, a glum boy who seems happier being alone listening to classic songs on his iPod than mixing with people. He lives with his mom, but wants to spend the summer with his dad, who lives in California with his new, much younger girlfriend. Unfortunately for him, he’s going with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette) to her boyfriend Trent’s beach house, along with Trent’s daughter Steph, who’d rather Duncan not exist.
The Way Way Back looks for the first few moments as if it’s set in the Seventies, but it’s just that Trent’s ride is a restored station wagon, complete with wood paneling.
Steve Carrell plays Trent as a seriously unlikeable character with no real redeeming qualities at all. He’s the villain of the story, and does a great job playing against his usual goofy, quirky, likeable character type.
The Way Way Back quickly fills you in on Duncan and Trent’s relationship with a conversation during the ride about what number he sees himself as. While Duncan thinks of himself as a six, Trent says that he’s a three with a lot of room for improvement. This also sets up the main conflict for the film, though it’s by no means the only one.
Duncan is flawed, some would say he’s too withdrawn and glum to get the audience to like him very much. I feel like he was purposely exaggerated to heighten the difference between the boy at the beginning of the film and the same boy at the end.
There’s no shortage of quirky characters at the beach, starting with Betty the next door neighbor, a woman who’s divorced but not really dealing with it well. She seems overbearing and too cheerfully drunk at the beginning of the film, but Allison Janney’s performance evens the character out so that by the end of the movie she’s bearable, maybe even likeable. It also helps that she’s one of the lighter, more comedic elements in The Way Way Back, always inviting her family to other people’s functions and then proclaiming something like ‘we’re invading your boat, just deal with it,’ or, ‘the party’s going to spill into your yard at some point during the night, so you might as well come anyway.’ Her son, Peter, has a lazy eye that’s wildly uncorrected, and while there are a lot of jokes that come out of that, they aren’t mean-spirited or passive-aggressive like most of the comments Trent makes to Duncan.
No summer coming of age story is complete without a love interest, and for Duncan that’s Susanna, Peter’s older sister, who also happens to be older than Duncan. She hangs out with Trent’s daughter, Steph, but is more independent and free-spirited. Duncan’s first few exchanges with Susanna are incredibly awkward, but as the film goes on they get less so. This is a little bit because they like each other but also because they’re both dealing with their parents divorces.
Duncan isn’t happy hanging around the house or being on the beach, so when he finds an old bike in the garage, he starts to explore the town, eventually finding his way to Water Wizz, a water park where a lot of the action of the film takes place. He’s content just to sit around staring at nothing, at least until he attracts the attention of Owen (Sam Rockwell) the manager of the park. He takes a liking to Duncan, despite that he’s serious and glum all the time. Owen gives Duncan a job at the park, which makes him happy because he can escape the house and the odious friends of Trent, who are constantly hanging around talking about old times and getting his mom into stuff that Duncan doesn’t think she should be doing.
Owen is hands down the best performance of the film, a fast-talking, quirky man-child who becomes part hero, part father figure to Duncan. He pries Duncan out of his glum shell with banter that’s part comedy, part serious. He teaches him the ways of the water park, the proper appreciation of the female form, as well as other less tangible lessons. By the end of the first day or so, Duncan finds that he fits in with all the other quirky characters at Water Wizz, something he’s never experienced anywhere else.
The story in The Way Way Back is pretty conventional despite the strange characters inhabiting its world, but the performances are so excellent and compelling that it hardly matters. I think if the story was anything but normal the film wouldn’t have worked as well as it did. There was only one part that I felt was too conventional and it had to do with Trent. It wasn’t that I felt it was out of character for him, but it kind of felt like villainy overkill. The audience had plenty of reasons not to like him, and it didn’t really need the most clichéd and overused one of all.
It’s a testament to the strength of the performances that when the end of The Way Way Back came, I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters. It also has to do with the abruptness of which the end comes, though there were plenty of indicators that it was wrapping up which I probably purposely ignored.
The Way Way Back ending the way it did connects you even more to Duncan, because as hard as it was to say goodbye to the characters you’d come to know and love, it was doubly hard for him to do. The ending left me wanting more and feeling sort of bittersweet, which was sort of perfect. Summer doesn’t last forever after all.