Movie Review: THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

Recently, the local independent theater, which is nestled in the back of a nondescript building on Court Square, announced that it would finally be partnering with a (less) local theater chain to show independent films. I literally bounced up and down with joy. The only other option here is monster behemoth Regal, and I feel a little slimy giving my dollars to them every time. Monopoly, grumble, grumble.

It was through this local partnership that I saw Much Ado About Nothing; Fruitvale Station came and went in a blink, and I didn’t get a chance to see it. Last night, I sat with the beau in a completely empty theater (I’m crossing my fingers this partnership proves fruitful enough to continue) to watch The Way Way Back. 

The Way Way Back (2013) Poster

The Way Way Back is a little release with a fantastic cast. It’s a kind of mash-up of all the nerd-comes-into-his-own-over-one-difficult-summer movies; it’s got a dash of The Sandlot, a pinch of Adventureland, a bit of Now and Then, just a drop of Charlie Bartlett, and a swirl of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Trent, a blustering philanderer played with grating arrogance by Steve Carell, takes his new(ish) girlfriend Pam and her son Duncan on a summer trip to his generically east coast beach house (as it turns out, the movie was filmed in Marshfield, Massachusetts). Poor Duncan is just about the nerdiest nerd who ever nerded, and Trent gets a thrill out of putting him down.

Upon arrival, the “family” encounters Betty, a drunken cliche in grotesquely tight white jeans and a drooping bikini top. Luckily, the filmmakers scored none other than the totally wonderful Allison Janney to inhabit Betty – and in Janney’s hands she’s goofily pleasant with a subtle underscore of sympathy. Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is discontent with Betty’s divorce, and to paraphrase Heathers, she doesn’t really like her friends very much. Rounding out the neighborhood is Trent’s daughter Steph, a lithe blonde with a like, totally hot boyfriend who resents Duncan’s presence (“Keep your distance, and just don’t die,” she warns him. “I don’t need that shit hanging over my head”). So begins the miserable summer of Duncan’s fourteenth year.

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, and Liam James in The Way Way Back

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, Liam James in The Way Way Back

As the adults continue their debauched vacation (“It’s like Spring Break for adults,” says Susanna wryly), Duncan wanders into Water Wizz, the local water park. Water Wizz is exactly what you think of when you think of the 1980s’ rise in amusement parks: the vaguely sexual hot dog statue, the crumbling outbuildings and slimy bathroom floors, the blistering pavement, and the depressing lines of fat kids waiting with their tubes to go down Devil’s Peak just once more before the park closes. (Don’t get me wrong, I actually love water parks – but this one meant to remind us of the depressing little ones that popped up everywhere 30 years ago and haven’t been updated since.) And it’s here he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell, charming as ever as a total man-child), who treats him the way Trent should: with respect. Water Wizz becomes Duncan’s sanctuary, and as his home life continues to disintegrate he leaves it all behind for the tang of chlorine and the whoosh of water slides.

Having grown up in the Midwest with parents who favored the mountains over the beach, I have only recently discovered the oddness that is beach culture for the middle class. It’s built around rickety clapboard houses with histrionic names (“Emerald Wave,” “Riptide,” “Sea-renity”) that people inhabit only a few weeks or months of the year, whose furniture and accessories likely haven’t been updated in three decades, and toward which people are fiercely loyal. The Water Wizz of the film fits neatly into this mold. I thought this distinct lack of place in time, a strange feeling that we were stuck in the 80s, was the reason for the movie’s title.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot about the movie that truly stands out aside from its cast. It’s an inaugural directorial and screenwriting effort from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (both of whom play supporting roles), and while you can feel the affection that went into the story, it’s all been done before. If, like me, you’re drawn to the genre innately, it’s a bit like deja vu. Rockwell’s steady stream of one-liners, Janney’s adeptness with physical comedy (she’s always just a little bit unsteady), and Maya Rudolph’s squinting disapproval can’t quite amp it up. Toni Collette plays vulnerability beautifully, and when she discovers Trent has been sleeping with Joan (Amanda Peet), her response is realistic and dismal. The movie is about its cast, so the cinematography is invisibly Hollywood; there isn’t much to be said about the editing or music. It’s a sweet story populated by very talented actors, but it’s not going to stand out in the legion of other variations on the same theme.Watch Full Movie Streaming Online and Download

It wasn’t until the very last scene that I understood the movie’s title, and its subtlety and metaphor made me smile. That was my favorite place to be when I was a kid, because you could spread out and make yourself at home.

(I’m still working out the necessity of a rating system, and how best to do that. If I’m going on a 5-star rating system, it’d get a solid 3.)


Come on, kid, could you look any more miserable? I’d kill to have my feet in the sand right now…

One comment

  1. dorothy says:

    yay! i’m so happy that you’re writing reviews again, julia! i’ve missed reading your posts. i’m looking forward to more of these 🙂

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