I am packing to move to California, and one of my "tasks" is to finally watch things that have been on my DVR before I lose them. This movie is one of them.
I had heard good things when it came out, but didn't manage to see it in the theaters. Then it showed up on cable, and I recorded it, but didn't manage to watch it then either. Last night, as I was building moving boxes, I turned it on to keep me company. Does this context affect how I felt about it? Possibly. To create a summery metaphor--it's possible that this movie is like a box of graham crackers, opened for a campfire night of s'mores, then left forgotten on a shelf for to long. When I finally did watch this, it felt stale and soggy, with some of the sweetness still discernible, but not really enjoyable to consume. Possibly not worth the effort.
The Way Way Back also suffers because it has many of the same themes and character interactions as Boyhood, Richard Linklater's movie about the transition from boyhood through adolescence. In many ways, I had just seen this story, and watching it a second time in as many weeks did neither movie any favors.
Quick synopsis: The Way Way Back follows fourteen year old Duncan through part of a summer at a beach house with his mother, her boyfriend, and his daughter. This is a test run of the possibility of becoming a family. There is a gorgeous, slightly older girl who lives next door, and her strange little brother. And there is a water park, where Duncan escapes the stifling (if privileged) life and meets the men who will be his true parental figures for the season.
Written by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who also wrote the Oscar-winning The Descendants), the movie has a great cast: Toni Collette as Duncan's mom, Steve Carell as her boyfriend. Alison Janney is the single mom next door; Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are other summer regulars. At the water park, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are the ostensible adults. The movie is so slight, that there is little characterization--what is there is provided by the actors bringing versions of themselves they have played before. So to limit confusion, I'm not even going to bother with their character names.
The movie starts in the car on the way to the beach house. Carell is driving this tank of a wood-sided station wagon that looks like something from 1973. Collette is sleeping in the passenger seat, Carell's daughter is also asleep, spread across the entirety of the back seat. I used to do that, back in the days before mandatory seat belt laws. (At this point, I have tentatively concluded that this is a period piece movie. More on this later.)
Duncan is sitting in what we used to call "The way way back"--the rear-facing jump seat of the station wagon. With the women sleeping, Carell starts a conversation with Duncan--a conversation that is ill-advised and awkward, made worse by the difficult acoustics of talking the length of a car.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you see yourself, Duncan?" So we know Carell is basically a dick. Maybe he means well, maybe he thinks he's orienting the kid to be socially successful in the new environment, but any such kindness is lost inside his belittling and hectoring tone. Duncan reluctantly offers "I don't know, a 6?" Carell brutally rejects that kind of grade inflation: "To me, you are a 3. Because I don't see you putting yourself out there, buddy." Anybody think this relationship is going to last? Duncan eventually manages to escape this humiliation by putting in ear buds and listening to his own music, thus hopelessly confusing the time line. The cars, the cavalier approach to vehicle safety, the swinging middle-aged singles vibe of the beach community--all speak to the mid-1970s. The ear buds say "current day." There is even an attempt to lampshade the visual confusion--Carell's first conversation with Janney is about how much it costs to keep a car like this, but worth it "because it's an exact copy of the car my dad used to drive." It's like Faxon and Rash started writing a valentine to their own teen aged summers, but due to budget constraints or something, half-assedly updated it, perhaps convinced that the result would be "timeless" rather than "half-assed." Which it is.
As the movie progressed, it hit just about every cliche and stereotype that I had feared, a grindingly depressing experience for women watching movies. The girl next door (played by AnnaSophia Robb, asked mostly to just look good in shorts and bikini cover-ups) is gorgeous, blond, and inexplicably interested in the odd-looking Duncan, and who persists in trying to make friends with him even in the face of multiple rejections. Sure, if you are watching this movie worrying about Duncan, then you presumably want him to have more chances to learn to be more socially adept. But if you are a girl, identifying with AnnaSophia's experience, then you see someone working really hard to be a friend in the complete absence of any encouragement, the utter lack of any visible point. Duncan is not just awkward, he is actively anti-charming, anti-friendly. I'm not sure what possible indication he gives of being anything but more work than he is worth. All of which is to say, if I am anyone other than his actual mom, I throw this one back as too small to keep.
AnnaSophia has what passes for a backstory, sketched with the fewest possible lines and filled in with a heavy wash of misogynistic cliche. There is a pack of teen girls she is impressed into, lead by a Queen Bee who brooks no individualism. When she wants to swim, all the girls must get into the water. She gossips nastily about other girls, she attempts to wrest attention from her ab-tastic dude-bro boyfriend, and all the girls chatter in the lilting Valley Speak that is shorthand for nasty vapidity. But not AnnaSophia! No--she would prefer to read while she is on the beach! See--she's different! Not like all this other girls! (Which is itself a deeply problematic trope that I'm just not going to get into here.)
Then there is her little brother, Peter. Kid has a lazy eye and refuses to wear the eye patch, causing (allegedly) comic frustration in his mom (Allison Janney). He's got a huge collection of Star Wars action figures, hangs out underneath the deck, and is the designated Weird Kid. Of course, Allison Janney is working really hard to foist him off on Duncan, because they are both boys and are in physical proximity, so that's all it takes, right?
There is a subtle calculus of cruelty that weird kids perform in self-defense. Duncan knows he's considered a loser--that "you're a 3" discussion made that obvious. He knows that AnnaSophia is out of his league--she's older, she's integrated into the community, she's so much better looking than he is. Realistically, he's got no chance with her and he knows it. He also intuits that he's going to look even worse if he's seen as a peer to her Weird Little Brother. So he tries to ditch Peter whenever possible, perpetrating the social ostracism that he himself is a victim of.
And yet, AnnaSophia keeps pursuing friendship with Duncan. Why? Because that's part of a Coming-of-age movie, so it's gotta happen. In real life, she'd be off with her snotty friends, who at least insist on her presence, unlike Duncan who keeps running away from her and her brother too.
There are middle-aged people melodrama set pieces too. Carell apparently has an affair every summer with Amanda Peet, and so she comes onto him. He doesn't shut it down entirely, but the actual indiscretion is kept off-screen. Nevertheless, Duncan and Collette see the telltale signs. To her credit, Colette underplays the emotional pain of this, which is possibly the best part of the movie, and is unlikely to actually exist on the page. This is a compliment to Collette and her craft.
There is a confrontation between Carell and Duncan, and Duncan yells, and tries to stand up for his mother, and says he wants to go live with his dad. Carell (of course, because he is a dick) lets him know that his dad doesn't want him--he's got a new, young girlfriend, a life in San Diego, and doesn't want his teen aged son around.
Off screen, Collette and Carell hash out their differences, erect a fragile truce under which they will try to salvage the relationship, and agree that they need to leave the beach house. Summer isn't over, but the vacation is.
Simultaneously, Duncan finds his own life at the "Water Wizz" park, a time locked attraction built in 1983 and never updated. The movie tell us this twice, in case you were still wondering in what year this movie is set. This does not actually clear up the confusion. Sam Rockwell runs the place, living in an apartment over the concession stand and generally being a charming screw-up, deploying his patented Sam Rockwell manic charm to keep the place open while not actually performing any work. That gets "delegated" to a visibly pregnant Maya Rudolph, as the Nagging Wife-figure who objects to having to do everything for the Man-Child, but not yet immune to his charms.
Also inexplicably, he takes Duncan under his wing, despite Duncan being unable to even understand the Rockwell Charm (TM). All his jokes crash and burn in the face of Duncan's literal way of thinking and his obvious misery. So of course he offers this kid a summer job. Because there are no rules governing a safety hazard like an outdated water park, or child labor laws for 14 year olds. Jim Rash plays the Jim Rash-iest of awkward equipment attendants, and Nat Faxon is a bro-tastic lifeguard, who literally teaches Duncan how to abuse his position as a life guard in order to leer at underaged girls in bikinis. This is presented as a "man skill" that helps Duncan fin chis groove and become socially adept. It is gross.
But the biggest enigma is Sam Rockwell's character, because he exists purely to demonstrate how to not-grow-up-at-all, which makes him the role model for how Duncan should be a man. And from the perspective of an awkward 14 year old, Rockwell does offer an appealing view of adult hood. One doesn't have to be a dick, or boring, or embarrassing like all the other adults in the movie. He's like one of the kids, but he gets to drink beer and have a girlfriend too, and he's got a gaggle of adoring kids who follow him around and drink him up like so much soda.
His manic charm is reminiscent of the dad from the Calvin and Hobbes comic--a desperate internal monolog to distract himself from the bone deep boredom of his life. He blows off work because he fundamentally doesn't care. Maya Rudolph calls attention o work that needs to be done, maintenance that should be addressed, and safety issues that could close the whole place down--and Rockwell doesn't do any of it. Its the behavior pattern of someone so stuck that they can't extricate themselves voluntarily--it would take the actions of an outside agent--the state shutting down the water park as a safety hazard--for him to ever leave. And he should leave, but it's easier just to not do anything. By taking no action, he is leaving it to the fates whether he stays of goes.
What does he do in the winter months, one wonders. How much can a decrepit water park actually pay a guy like him, enough to afford cheap beer through the off season? If he lives on site?
It's like the three of them--Rockwell, Faxon and Rash--got jobs here out of high school and never moved on. None of them are happy or fulfilled, but none of them can actually bring themselves to do anything about it--including doing their jobs properly. Somehow, they aged into being in charge, without ever really maturing. And these are the mentors, this is Duncan's "happy place."
He never tells anybody at the beach where he goes every day--and the park is far away from the beach world, both geographically and socio-economically. But AnnaSophia is curious (why? because she is the Summer Movie Dream Girl, and the plot requires it), so she follows him on her bike. There is a montage of the two of them spending the day at the park together as he shows her around and they bond over missing their fathers, and their mothers' fear of losing them to those fathers. There is an awkward attempt at a kiss, which doesn't happen, so Duncan runs away. Awkwardly.
Then the blow up at home happens, and as they are headed out of town, Carell has to stop to put gas in his land yacht, across the street from the Water Wizz. Duncan jumps out of the car and runs over to say goodbye to his "friends." There is the mandatory Epic Summer Stunt--he manages to pass Rockwell in the water slide tube, and the kids all cheer. Mom sees his achievement and is proud. Carell is a dick, and says "are we done yet?" There are fond goodbyes from his "real" family of under-achieving park employees. In the car, Mom climbs over the seats and joins Duncan in the way way back, thus signaling her abandonment of Carell and that relationship in favor of the proper parental relationship with her son. ("Proper" here meaning one without any of it's own drama or narrative arc.)
Disappointing. Not enough Rockwell Charm (TM), which is really the only thing that keeps this dead weight of a movie afloat. Collette nicely underplays the emotional hits she takes from an untrustworthy boyfriend, but that story line is buried under the much less interesting one of the 14 year old. AnnaSophia Robb looks age appropriate, and she gives Duncan a kiss on the cheek at the end, because of course that's what the movie requires of her. Carell is believable as an attractive enough shell of a man plastered over a very unpleasant center, but he doesn't ultimately rise about the Bad Step Dad cliche. Maya Rudolph manages to be a nag without becoming unattractive or spoiling the "fun," which is a tribute to her delightful screen persona, but is seriously retrograde as a character arc. The movie does capture the kind of disorientation that is a summer vacation at the beach--the pace of beach community life in the summer is convincing. The idea that Steve Carell could afford to take the entire summer off of work to hang around the beach is not convincingly presented. Who are these people? Do they have jobs or lives away from the beach for the other 9 months of the year?
It's a movie that makes some bare, emotional sense if you fully commit to only watching it through the eyes of the 14 year old Duncan. He doesn't seek to understand the hows and the whys of other people. Things just happen, and he reacts to them. His "growth" is that his reactions become slightly less passive and awkward over the course of the movie. He doesn't understand his mother or the hard choices she is making--he doesn't even see them. He doesn't exhibit any awareness that AnnaSophia is making uncharacteristically sustained efforts to be his friend--because this is a Teen Summer Beach Movie, and so there has to be A Girl for him to Achieve. Which he sort of does. He never sees past Peter's weirdness and physical deformity to the socially savvy person inside--a kid who enters an employee farewell party for Jim Rash, confronting a room full of mostly adults he has never even seen before, and who manages to match Rockwell in a mock charm-off. Duncan could have learned a lot from this kid, but the movie doesn't actually care about that. It's all about Duncan--and Duncan may be the least interesting character in the entire movie. Including Peter's Star Wars action figures.
Too bad. The cast did what they could, but there wasn't enough there there to make this the movie it could have been. Like Duncan, it needs to grow up a bit more before it's really worth spending much time with it.
(Written, directed, and produced by Rash and Faxon--might have benefitted from adding some more skilled participants to elevate this out of it's near miss status.)