You remember the way, way back. If you’re over the age of 40 and your parents owned a station wagon you do. That was the space far past the vinyl seats and wooden panels, at the very rear of the car, seemingly on the other side of the world — a spot reserved for the youngest kid to sit facing backward on long family trips, luggage banging against his knees, and stare out the window as the trees and center line stripes whizzed by. There was always time for daydreaming of what adventures awaited the family in the way, way back. Or fending off punches from your older brother, who knew you couldn’t see them coming because you were faced in the opposite direction. Or hoping and praying that your dad would pull off the interstate soon because you had to pee.
That’s what it was like for me. I’m not so sure it’s the same for Duncan (Liam James), the lanky and awkward teenage hero of the new film, The Way Way Back. To him, the space is a prison, the sides closing in on him with almost claustrophobic weight. It doesn’t help that the car is owned by his mother’s new boyfriend, Trent (an all-too-effective Steve Carell), one of the most loathsome film characters I’ve seen in some time; that Trent is a used car dealer who thinks his “mint” 1970 Buick Estate Station Wagon is a wonder to behold speaks volumes. This guy’s a real piece of work, content to inflate his sense of self-importance by humiliating his girlfriend’s son.
“How would you rate yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10?” Trent asks Duncan, as the tenuous new family (which includes Trent’s bitchy teenage daughter) spirits off to Trent’s New York beach house for a few weeks. Duncan resists answering, but Trent persists, pushing the kid with a skill of a schoolyard bully. Duncan calls himself a 6. “No,” Trent replies. “I think you’re a 3.” This is the first of many stellar exchanges of dialogue in a movie that combines the sophomoric humor of Caddyshack with the uncomfortable truths of The Descendants, for which the writers of this film, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also direct), won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The duo seem to be on a roll with the painful directness of their characters; Trent’s opening salvo to Duncan’s self-esteem is not entirely dissimilar to Shailene Woodley’s cruel revelation to George Clooney that his incapacitated wife had been cheating on him.
Duncan is at a loss. Certainly his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is not much help. Still smarting from the end of her marriage, her own self-esteem left to crumble like dead leaves, Pam latches onto Trent as if he were a life jacket, oblivious to his stinging barbs. The couple spends their days and nights drinking with their favorite friends: Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), and next-door neighbor Betty, a crass, trashy alcoholic divorcée without a filter between her mouth and her brain who sincerely believes that her young son’s lazy eye makes people uncomfortable. As played by the gifted Allison Janney, Betty is a real peach, whose opening rapid-fire monologue, in all its indiscreet glory, is an exercise in writing so rapturous, I wanted to hug the screen. I also suspect Janney will finally get an Oscar nomination for this performance. Alone for the summer, Duncan soon retreats even further into himself, his shoulders hunched, feet shuffling.
Enter Owen, manager of the local Water Wizz water park, a man-sized slacker whose greatest ambition is to convince people that he’s the only person to ever pass someone on the water slide. Acutely aware of Duncan’s homeward grief, Owen takes him under his wing and gives him a job at the park — the kind of act that can change a kid’s life. The scenes between the two are often touching, and reminded me of when Bill Murray befriended Wudy the Wabbit in Meatballs. In Owen, Sam Rockwell has found a showcase. For all of Owen’s failings as a mature adult, he’s a hell of a kid at heart and a friend to Duncan, and Rockwell, as one of the most gifted actors you know by face but maybe not by name, plays him for all it’s worth. Owen even finds his own unique brand of heartbreak, as he tries desperately to woo a co-worker (the invaluable Maya Rudolph) who sees Owen as an investment risk.
This is a great little treasure of a film, light and airy, with a sharp wit and an eye for poignancy that recalls Little Miss Sunshine. A few of the parts aren’t as successful as the whole, I’ll admit. Some of the scenes at the waterpark occasionally spill into slapstick, as when three fat kids try to go down the slide all at once, only to get backed up like a clog in a drain. And a moment where one of the slide attendants (and later, Duncan) lines up pretty girls and asks them to “hold for repairs” just so he and the others can watch them from the backside comes across as slightly offensive when it should be funny. Missteps or not, it’s all a welcome respite from the doldrums of the beach house, which seems perpetually perched beneath a hovering cloud of doom.
Maybe the way, way back of the car isn’t such a bad place for Duncan to be, after all.