Written and directed by the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (winners of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants), The Way, Way Back is absolutely one of the best films of 2013 so far. And even saying that feels inadequate because it's such a fine film, a coming-of-age comedy/drama with a great script, fine performances by a superb cast, and directed with a flawless natural touch so that there's never a moment where things feel false or forced.
The Way, Way Back is seen from the point of view of Duncan (Liam James), the shy and awkward fourteen-year-old son of recently divorced Pam (Toni Collette), as they head out on a summer vacation with Pam's also-divorced boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent's teenaged daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Riding in the back of Trent's station wagon, Duncan is visibly less than thrilled at the prospect. It's quickly apparent why in the opening scene when Trent engages Duncan in conversation while Pam and Steph are sleeping, asking Duncan to rate himself on a scale from one to ten. When Duncan shrugs and rates himself a middling "six", Trent immediately responds with a down-putting
"I think you're a three. You know why I think you're a three? Since I've been dating your mom, I don't see you putting yourself out there, bud. The good news is that there are going to be plenty of opportunities for you to take advantage of at my beach house this summer. It's a big summer for all of us really. So what do you say you try to get that score up huh? Aim a little higher than a three? You up for that, buddy?"
Which tells us everything we need to know about Trent and how he deals with people.
When they arrive at Trent's beach house, they are immediately greeted by neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), who like Pam is divorced with kids, teenage daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and younger son Peter (River Alexander). Later on they are joined by Trent's friends Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry). Duncan feels distinctly out of place and increasingly miserable. Trent and Pam are always partying with Trent's friends (with Trent constantly seeming to find ways to intimidate or humiliate Duncan). Steph is like a miniature version of her father, bossing her own clique around and not wanting anything to do with Duncan. Peter's too young to be company, and Susanna is, well, a girl, and Duncan finds it very difficult to talk to girls. Even when Susanna makes the effort to talk to him.
Desperate to get away from the beach house, Duncan finds a small girls' bike - probably Steph's when she was younger - in the garage and takes a ride into the nearby town. At the local pizzeria he sees Owen (Sam Rockwell) busily playing Pacman on an old videogame machine. After watching for a bit, Duncan mentions that there's a trick to the game - a pattern to follow that'd make it a lot easier. Owen looks at Duncan like he's crazy. "What fun is that?" Owen retorts. "Just following a pattern?" Before he can finish his game though, Owen, who it turns out owns the local water park - the Water Wizz - gets called back to work. He still has a life left on the game, so he asks Duncan to finish up. But as Owen leaves, he calls back mock-imperiously "No pattern on _my_ quarter! Cut your own pattern!" Which tells us everything we need to know about Owen and how different he is from Trent, something that Duncan immediately picks up on.
The next day, Duncan goes to the Water Wizz, partly out of curiosity but mainly to get away from the beach house. The scene when Owen comes across Duncan sitting by himself on a bench is priceless:
Owen (deadpan serious): "I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to leave."
Duncan (startled): "What?"
Owen: (still deadpan): "You're having way to much fun. It's making everyone uncomfortable."
Duncan (dejected, getting up to go): "Okay."
Owen (dropping the act when he realizes that Duncan is taking him seriously): "Wow! I was just kidding! And that wasn't even my best stuff!"
Before Duncan knows it, Owen takes him under his wing and gives him a job helping out at the Water Wizz, giving him both a place to escape to during the day and, more importantly, a place people just accept him as he is. This is the kind of summer job we all wish we had when we were kids (well, all of us who aren't future Trent's anyway). Given his first real taste of both acceptance and responsibility, Duncan blossoms in the easy-going environment, and for the first time we actually see him happy.
It's hard to say enough about the superb cast and the spot-on performances they bring. Liam James (The Killing, Psych) does a marvelous job of bringing out Duncan's coming of age, growing over the course of the film from being withdrawn and uncertain to growing in self-identity and confidence as he confronts the unpleasant realities that his mother is unwilling to face. Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine and The United States of Tara) is particularly moving as Duncan's mom, Pam, struggling to deal with being divorced, with raising a teenaged son and with her fear of being alone, and knowing that she's not doing all that good a job at any of it. Steve Carell, well-known from his many, many comedic roles, turns in a highly effective straight-laced performance as Trent, bringing out the character's manipulative and frequently demeaning nature in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Allison Janney (The West Wing)'s Betty is a nice turn as a kind of simpatico counterpoint to Pam, being another divorced mother with kids, trying to do her best and dealing with the same struggles, albeit with a fair amount of drinking, a performance at once both comic and sympathetic. Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live and Up All Night) is solid as Owen's patient but reaching-her-limits girlfriend, Caitlin. AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia, Soul Surfer) is perfect as Susanna, Duncan's companion in summer-vacation misery and the girl who (after several tries) gets Duncan to open up some. River Alexander has some choice comic moments as Susanna's younger brother, Peter, who's desperate to escape their well-meaning but trying-too-hard mom. And writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring good-natured comradery as Roddy and Lewis, veteran employees of Water Wizz, the water park where Duncan ends up working. But it's Sam Rockwell who gives The Way, Way Back a lot of its comic heart as Owen, the laid-back cracking-wise owner of the water park who ends up taking Duncan under his wing and giving him his first tastes of independence, of responsibility, and most importantly of acceptance for simply being who he is and not expecting him to be anything other than that.
The screenplay is extremely well done, with a nice even flow and natural believable dialogue that gives depth and development to all of the characters, and is, I feel, worthy of a Best Original Screenplay nomination come Oscar time. According to an interview, Jim Rash said that the main inspiration for the story was really the opening scene between Duncan and Trent, which was based on a similar conversation he had with his own stepfather when he himself was 14.
There is also an interesting story behind how the film ended up with the title The Way, Way Back. When the script was actually written back in 2007, the original title was The Way Back, which was easily understood given the themes of the film and the way in which it ends. However, by the time the project was green-lit for actual production, another film with the title The Way Back had just come out in 2010. So partly to avoid confusion with that film, and partly as a kind of inside joke, Faxon and Rash changed the name of their film to The Way, Way Back.
And on a last note of trivia, the Water Wizz is an actual water park in Massachusetts. Everything you see in the Water Wizz scenes - including the staff uniforms - is part of the water park, and most of the extras are locals who actually go there. A nice touch of reality that really adds to the realistic feel of the film.
Highly, highly recommended.