So, I hate those Oscar season movies designed to manipulate your emotions in a very precise, very calibrated way. You know what I mean? Those stories where everything is kind of generally terrible and the humorous absurdity of human life never works its way to the surface? What I object to about those films is, more often than not, their way of twisting away from actually developing their characters and instead relying too heavily on emotionally intense situations. Those films (and one or two of them seem to grab a few nods every year) fall under a heading of genuinely disingenuous where many a small family melodrama reveals itself to be resonant or sincere while still in possession of something playful. The Way, Way Back is one such film: a near-perfect example of an indie summer comedy, but more deeply, pleasantly affecting than the dramatic downers pushing and shoving for your attention in the dead of winter.
There's something familiar and well-worn about much of The Way, Way Back. It seems built from a patchwork of past successes and Sundance favorites; the kind of crowd-pleasing films that you buy and return to when you need to remember there are good things in the world. You've got your Little Miss Sunshine, your Adventureland, your The Descendants -- not to mention your choice of semi-dark coming-of-age comedies. The Way, Way Back is another in a line-up, and feels like a broken in t-shirt. Everything is exactly in place, there are few surprises (pleasant or unpleasant), but the dialogue is sharp, the lines are funny, and the characters affable. Ostensibly, we're following the teen angst of slouched, pale and miserable Duncan (Liam James) as he's pulled from his natural environment and forced into an extended summer vacation at his mom's boyfriend Trent's (Steve Carell) beach house. Duncan's mom Pam (Toni Collette) has managed to turn a blind eye to Trent's instigating relationship with her boy, and snoozes through moments where Trent attempts to forcefully motivate awkward Duncan into becoming a more social creature by way of belittling diatribes. To be more like Trent, though, would mean being an oily car salesman for whom beach house life is an endless run of gluttonous, irresponsible decisions. The film relishes this element, though, mining instantaneous comedic gold from a bawdy, boozed-up Allison Janney and a small gang of familiar sun-worshipers.
Desperate for an escape, Duncan pedals to the local water park and finds solace hanging with the employees. The boss, Owen (Sam Rockwell) is a manic-pixie-dream-father for Duncan; a character capable of sweeping onto the scene with an endless string of wisecracks, put-ons, and devil-may-care beliefs and changing a bored kid's life for the better. So, ostensibly, The Way, Way Back is about Duncan trying to find himself. I say ostensibly because although the film uses Duncan to guide us through the story -and to connect the dots between the arrested development of the beach house and the water park - there's an engagement with the secondary characters that's productive, satisfying, and memorable in spite of its cliches. They've got something, and although they traipse through familiar situations, it certainly doesn't seem stale. Maybe it's a mix of the right lines, the right chemistry, and the right chronology. Maybe it's that they let Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell do what they do best for extended periods of time. They're fabulous, the both of 'em, and thankfully never forced to cross paths and battle for our favor.
The best answer to what The Way, Way Back has is sort of like the answer to what Little Miss Sunshine had that made it just different enough to strike a chord: if you stripped it of its broad comedic strokes, threw some shadow on the scenery, and zoomed out to keep the focus on the adults...it transforms rapidly into something much closer to the tough love Oscar fare we're used to heaping accolades on. There's a hint of something kept at bay and transmogrified into sour, sharp little one-liners, and it's that sense of something just deep enough that gives the film's humor some fighting weight... and a beating heart to back it up with. The indie coming of age/dysfunctional family story has become a sort of formula film-type of its own. Like those Oscar-bait bits of emotional pornography, they frequently try too hard to capture the fragile point between childhood and adulthood in a way that simpers with nostalgia, sidles up to you with a sad pop song, and wins you over with a realist triumph. They want you to feel or they want you to laugh. Sometimes, they want you to be shocked, and that's usually a recipe for disaster. When you pool all the forgotten titles cluttering library shelves, you start to realize that getting the right thoughts down in the right order with the right cast and the right lines and the right pacing is a hell of a lot harder than it looks. The Way, Way Back does it. It gets it right. If it wanted to keep going? That would be alright too.