THE WAY WAY BACK is a sensitive, intelligent coming-of-age tale that is never trite, maudlin, or melodramatic. Instead, it harbors a strong sense of reality when it comes to adults acting like children and vice versa. It brings you up short with its very first shot. That would be of Steve Carells eyes in a rear-view mirror, but not the sad, sweet eyes of the cuddly characters that Carrel usually plays. This is a departure and a breathtaking one, both in performance and in risk, The same can be said of the film as a whole, which takes familiar tropes and skews them into something new and bracing.
Carrel is Trent, an angry, bitter man with a façade of friendly concern as he grills 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) about how he rates himself on a scale from one to ten. The tension is palpable, with Duncan in the rear of the vintage Buick taking them all to Trents summer beach house. The way, way back of the title, in fact, a jump-seat that faces the rear window. Duncan, prodded without mercy, tentatively offers up that he is a six. Trent immediately shoots back that he is, in fact, a three, unwilling to put himself out there per Duncans mother (Toni Collette), who is Trents girlfriend who is asleep next to Trent in the front seat. Trents snotty teenage daughter is asleep in the back seat, leaving no one to witness, much less defend the introverted, overthinking kid who cant think of a riposte and, hence, sinks further into a sulk that mystifies his mother when she wakes up. The cold, naked disdain in Carrels eyes, the only part of him seen during this exchange, is a game-changer for the actor. Unafraid to be unlikable as a calculating manipulator without scruple, he is every bit the formidable thespian Collette is, playing expertly off her characters insecurities as a working-class, single-mother of a certain age, trying to fit in with Trents upscale friends (Robb Corddry, Amanda Peet).
At the beach house, Duncan is confronted by the boozy, bitter, neighbor (Alison Janney) given to oversharing the details of both her personal life and her décolletage, as well as by her enchanting, semi-cynical daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), a blonde vision of teenage ennui. It becomes clear to Duncan as he watches the adults cavort drunkenly, and the girls closer to his own age dismiss him, and Trents relentless needling to which his mother turns a blind eye, that he is on his own for the summer. Taking to the road on a pink stingray bicycle he finds in the garage, he eventually discovers Wizz World, a water park frequented by the less affluent members of the community, the ones who dont have summer beach house. There he is taken under wing by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the wise-cracking, big-hearted manager of the operation who is dumbfounded by Duncans inability to get his jokes, Or any jokes, for that matter. Owen does the one thing no other adult is doing. He pays uncritical attention to Duncan, subtly boosting his self-esteem by testing his mettle as a water park employee. As do and the rest of the staff, who are charmed by the kids awkward earnestness, and the way he shines with the silence of adolescent boys when given praise.
Co-written and co-directed by Oscar-winners Nate Faxon and Jim Rash (THE DESCENDANTS), it perceptively maintains Duncans point of view throughout. Glimpses of adults with too much time on their hands laughing for no apparent reason, or fighting for ones that are all too obvious are the fabric of Duncans home-life, while his work-life is one of adults who live from paycheck-to-paycheck, making the best of it, or at least seeming to. Though the subtext is there, Faxon and Rash never make the mistake of turning the story into a dialectic on the class system, though its always there, instead this is always a perceptive, incisive film about people at different points in their lives struggling or drowning. If the film is a game-changer for Carrel, it is a showcase for James, who likewise does not pander to the audience. Immediately garnering its empathy, he sulks with a palpable, outsize anger that is in direct proportion to the betrayal he feels from his mothers emotional abandonment, and blooms with unrestrained joy that he is barely able to express when accepted as part of the gang at Wizz World. This is a mature performance that never relies on gimmicks or clichés in a film boasts many such efforts, including Rash as the wistful and woebegone Wizz World employee dreaming of chasing tornadoes instead of staffing the least popular booth at the water park. Behind the outsize glasses and tart barbs, Rash reveals a perfect portrait of entropic disappointment that cant quite quash that last, annoying spark of hope.
THE WAY WAY BACK, for all its heartache, is never the downer it would be in lesser hands. Things go wrong, but there is the unmistakable implication that better days are ahead, because of, not in spite of, this summer from hell having been weathered intact.