A few Communies (including the lovely ladies from Head Over Feels, who posted their own review of the film) and I were lucky enough to attend a screening of The Way, Way Back at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria last week. I’ve been excited about this film for a while, for so many reasons. Most importantly, it was written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants, two people my Twitter timeline know very well. But even if wasn’t interested in its creators, the film’s trailer seemed to hint that this film was going to be something special.
The museum was screening it as part of series on coming of age summer films, and I have to admit, I haven’t seen the other films they’ve shown (despite them all being very, very famous. Whatever, guys, I was born in the ‘90s and my mom was apathetic about expanding my film knowledge), so I can’t speak to just how much they have in common with The Way, Way Back. But I’ve always been drawn to character-based stories, especially ones about teenagers, because when they’re done well, they speak to the widest possible range of its audience: everyone has been a teenager, and remembers what that time is like. But even though they have the ability to be the truest and most honest representations of life, coming-of-age stories, like anything else, have developed certain patterns and follow similar structures. And there were certain elements covered in The Way, Way Back: there’s an awkward boy in a very, very unfamiliar environment, a girl who offers a different way of life, a role model outside his troubled family…But this film took those familiar elements and turned them into something else, something unexpected and fresh. It wasn’t just a great film; it was something I’ve never seen before.
Warning: I don’t discuss the plot directly, but I talk enough about the emotional journeys of the film that it might spoil some of the impact of the film. I think it added a LOT to the experience to not have an idea of where things were heading, so if you plan on seeing this movie, I’d wait to read my review. If you don’t care about having it spoiled, or you’ve come back after seeing it, then proceed.
The Way, Way Back is about Duncan (Liam James), a fourteen-year-old boy who’s heading up to his mother’s boyfriend’s summer home in Massachusetts. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is trying to force the idea of becoming a family with Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), but Steph wants nothing to do with him and Trent is making no effort to befriend Duncan, but rather turn him into a “better” version of himself. He starts staying out all day just to avoid having to be home with Trent and his mother, and winds up visiting Water Wizz, a local water park where he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who gives him a job, and becomes the only real friend he has.
Like I said, so many elements of this film surprised me, but the biggest surprise was the casting, and the effect that it had on the way you become invested in the story. I had never heard of Liam James before this (though apparently he’s had a rather extensive recurring role on Psych), and I always prefer character-based films like this to be head by actors who aren’t well-known. That way you can avoid preconceptions of the actor and what they can do, and you fully believe their character’s arc. And I fully believed everything Duncan was feeling. During the Q&A after the screening, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash implied that Duncan’s awkwardness can be seen in James himself, a natural stage for any teenager. But it worked so well for Duncan’s character – it was usually used for comedy, but many of the situations in which Duncan’s self-consciousness was highlighted, including a scene when Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) overhears him loudly singing along to “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” and one when he has to dance in order to break up a large crowd of people at the water park, could have very easily become painful to watch. In fact, it was one of the many ways the film played with your preconceptions of the genre: I kept waiting for Duncan to fall, and for his habit of being slightly out-of-touch with the world around him to set him apart from the people in his life in ways he couldn’t overcome. But, beautifully, that wasn’t Duncan’s struggle. His story dovetailed in other ways, but then came together in such a way that I was kicking myself for even thinking that it might take a conventional route.
Unlike the role of Duncan, very recognizable actors (most notably Pam, Trent, and Owen) played all the adult roles in the film. Even the secondary characters were recognizable: there’s Trent’s next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and his friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and his wife Joan (Amanda Peet). The fact that all of these characters were played by well-known actors accomplished a few different things, but it hinted that these characters were going to be doing exactly what all characters should do: they were going to serve a very important role in the story. They weren’t just people added in to fill up space, and to show us the world Trent lives in every summer. They were going to have a role to play in the narrative, but I couldn’t have predicted how. In this case, having preconceptions of the actors worked beautifully. Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, to me, are known for lighter roles, so the way their story intertwines with Trent and Pam’s was shocking.
But nothing was as surprising as the role of Trent, played by the affable Steve Carell. I mean, come on. It’s impossible not to love Steve Carell. And I absolutely hated him in this movie. He so brilliantly portrayed Trent as being both blind and inconsiderate the others around him that I forgot I was watching an actor I loved, and I sympathized completely with Duncan’s desire to get away from him. It was a masterful manipulation of the audience’s sympathy; we feel uneasy about him for most of the film, despite the opening scene in which Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1-10, and then gives him a 3. Part of me thought maybe Duncan was the one causing issues at least some of the time, and that it would be possible for them to work out their relationship. Yeah, no, I was so very wrong. But again, the film used your expectations against you, but as soon as you see the outcomes, it makes complete sense. It seems like there’s no other way these storylines could have flowed and resolved than the ways they ended up.
It’s impossible to discuss this movie without touching on Owen and Duncan’s relationship. Sam Rockwell is one of those actors who’s done enough work that I can’t really pin him down to a certain type of character, but this still felt fresh for him. I had certain expectations for how I thought their relationship would go, but I couldn’t really articulate why exactly I was so invested in it until I read Sage’s review at Head Over Feels (which is a not-so-subtle plug to go read their review). I realized that I was spending the entire movie waiting for Owen to fail Duncan somehow. Because that’s what happens, right? A teenager looks up to an adult who eventually teaches the teenager that even adults don’t know what they’re doing, etc. But that’s not an issue here. I mean, okay, yeah, Duncan’s pretty aware from the beginning that Owen isn’t exactly a functional adult, but the reason this relationship is so great is that neither character really casts unfair or unrealistic expectations on the either. The friendship between an adult and a teenager is nothing new: it highlights the teenager’s maturity and disconnect from his environment, but the thing is, it’s never done in a realistic way. And sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it really distracts from a movie. What made Owen and Duncan’s friendship work so well is that it had boundaries. Duncan’s never really able to know Owen all that well because he hides behind jokes (like his jokes about his relationship with Caitlyn that turn out to be true. When I first saw the trailer and Owen joked that Caitlyn wanted him, I never thought that maybe that was the truth), and Owen’s very aware that there are certain things that aren’t okay to do with a fourteen-year-old. The only time he takes on the role of an authority figure is when Duncan stumbles into the employees’ party (something he undoubtedly wasn’t told about because of his age) and Owen makes a point to tell him and Peter that they can’t drink. I was surprised at a few scenes near the end of the film when we sort of see the emotional payoff of their friendship, because it’s easy to forget that Owen is in his thirties and therefore views Duncan differently than Duncan views him.
I think a large reason why my predictions for the upcoming plot twists because I didn’t expect the film to legitimize teenagers as much as it did. I’m twenty, so I still relate primarily with teens in movies, and it’s so, so difficult to get that voice right. Films, even coming-of-age stories that are supposed to represent the true teenage voice, seem to follow one of two paths: either they glorify the teen’s selfishness and shallow needs as being completely legitimate, or they show the character realizing that he needs to grow up and adapt to the world. The Way, Way Back felt like it was creating a middle ground, one where the character isn’t selfish or immature, but it’s completely impossible to be ingratiated into the world around him. The character of Trent is a burden to Duncan, and in so many ways represents a life that’s being forced on Duncan: there’s the obvious fact that he’s been placed in a paternal role to Duncan, and yet neither of them have any familial affection for each other at all. The entire notion of spending the summer with Trent creates a direct scenario in which Trent is completely replacing Duncan’s father: Duncan believes it was a possibility to have spent the summer with his father, but that his mother instead chose for them all to go to Massachusetts together. And normally, films would present this as a good thing, that Duncan is holding onto a life that he can’t have and needs to accept the fact that his mother is moving on, and become part of this new family. But this film completely spins that. Once it was made absolutely clear that we shouldn’t look for redemption in Trent, I spent the entire film praying that Duncan would stay resolute in his feelings for Trent. After all, he’s the only one who fully sees Trent’s flaws and the problems in his relationship with Pam. It was a perfect marriage of the conventional ways to present teenagers as either all-knowing or being completely blind: Duncan’s status as an outsider allowed him to understand Trent in ways his mother was ignoring, making him the only person in this world who understood exactly what was going on.
The film represented the entire concept of being a teenager in such interesting ways, and was probably the best representation of my experience that I’ve ever seen. Most of the classic teenage movies were made in the ‘80s, and while emotionally, everyone goes through the same basic things, it was just such a different time socially that I can only relate so much to these classic teen heroes. And then movies today seem to build on this standard image of teenagers as slightly emotionally stunted and very technology-dependent, or they categorize every character into a particular clique. And I get why it’s easy to write teenagers off into neat little boxes, but it’s just not true. I was mature as a teenager, and though I was definitely prone to reacting emotionally or just making dumb decisions, I could approach things rationally. And while I’ve obviously changed over the last six or so years, I think my values as a twenty-year-old are almost exactly what they were when I was fourteen. Showing this, I think, was Susanna’s role in the movie – she’s not just a love interest for Duncan, but a symbol that you can have conflicting emotions or impulses that can make you act like a completely different person depending on who you’re around, and that’s okay.
During the Q&A, someone asked if the lack of technology in the film was intentional, and whether Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were trying to make some sort of statement by leaving its influences out. Until then, I hadn’t necessarily picked up on the fact that it was barely present – we see Steph and Susanna on their phones, and Duncan’s listening to his iPod at one point, but the bulk of the film (and the entirety of the emotional connections) relies on face-to-face interaction. As it turns out, Faxon and Rash hadn’t intended on making any sort of statement, or even on making technology almost nonexistent in the film. And it works well: it doesn’t feel like the teenagers are acting out of character by not constantly checking their phones, or like something is somehow missing. And while I didn’t necessarily pick up on it while watching the film, you can definitely feel it: something about the way the characters interacted helped the feeling of nostalgia, an idea I’ll talk about in a bit. But as soon as it was pointed out, I loved it, because I realized that it was another true representation of my teenage experience. I haven’t done enough experimentation to confirm this, but I think that people my age are the youngest people who remember what life was like before technology was everywhere. Yeah, I used computers growing up, but the concept of creating connections and some sort of life for yourself online really didn’t start cropping up until a few years ago. So when I was a teenager, because we had grown up without these devices that really affected the way you lived your life and connected to people, we still thrived on those face-to-face interactions. There’s a joke on Community when Troy yells, “She was born in the ‘80s! She still uses her phone as a phone!” Well, I was born in 1993 and I’ve always used my phone as a phone. But it’s such a tricky middle ground between groups of people who completely learned technology, and people who completely grew up on it, that my particular age group is never accurately captured in film. It just isn’t. But in this film, where technology is glimpsed at but not missed, I felt like I was finally seeing a teenage character who I could completely relate to.
The other important message about being a teenager comes through Duncan’s character. I already talked about how what we see as Duncan’s flaws don’t turn out to lead to his downfall or act detrimentally to his growth. Basically, the problems in this film aren’t born out of Duncan being the way he is. It’s an important message for teenagers to hear, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. His fight with Trent is the biggest emotional scene up to this point in the film, and really the first one that doesn’t use humor to mask its true emotional background. But this conflict is not something caused by a flaw in Duncan, or by a mistake he makes. Duncan isn’t the problem here; the problem is Duncan’s environment and the people in it – specifically Trent, who refuses to adapt to the change Duncan brings to his life. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film like this (or any kind of film) that stays this true to the characters’ emotional journeys. It would be easy to make Duncan the bad guy, to make him selfishly sabotage Pam and Trent’s relationship, but the film takes a different approach. It sends a beautiful message to the teenagers who are undoubtedly relating to Duncan: You are not the problem. There is nothing wrong with you.
After the movie ended, Sage leaned over to me and said how glad she is that movies like this are being made. It was basically the perfect way to sum up my thoughts at that point, when I hadn’t had nearly enough time to figure out exactly why I loved it. It fits in with other coming-of-age stories, and certainly has a place in the museum’s screening series, but is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Each element of the plot and the production was so vital and Faxon and Rash beautifully put all those individual pieces together to create a film that feels honest, tangible, and important. I don’t know the last time I’ve seen a movie that was this well-crafted, and that seemed to love and respect its characters as much as this.
After the screening, there was a Q&A with Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Sam Rockwell, and Liam James. Some highlights from the discussion:
-This script was written eight years ago, before they even got hired to write The Descendants, and was born out of a conversation Rash had with his then-stepfather, in which he asked Jim how he would rank himself on a scale of 1-10. The entire conversation in the film is verbatim.
-Sam Rockwell is so stupidly attractive, I don’t even have the words to describe it. He was wearing glasses, okay. Who does he think he is?
-Rash and Faxon created a few running jokes throughout the discussion, including yelling, “WE FOUND YOU” at Liam James, who they said got the role because of how natural his approach was.
-Liam James is the cutest human being ever. Period. He had an adorable fauxhawk that, when we first saw it, made Sage and I squeal and grab at each other. Kim and Sage kept whispering that I need to date him, but he’s only sixteen, so I’ll just be his babysitter. If the entire audience wasn’t already in love with him after the film, they were all done for after he said he loved Sam Rockwell, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash “to the moon and back”.
-Water Wizz is a real water park outside of Boston, but they couldn’t afford to completely shut it down during production, so they’d shut down certain areas of the park while filming. So many of the people in the background are real people, not extras, a fact Sam Rockwell occasionally forgot while filming.
-Jim Rash’s role as Lewis grew during production, a fact I think everyone in the audience appreciated. “I have two dads, you know that!” might have been the best line in the movie.
-Nat Faxon’s entire face lit up when Kim and Sage told him they were huge Ben and Kate fans. It was possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in real life (after Liam James).
-The title came from what people call the back seat of a car, where Duncan sits during the first and last scenes of the film. It also refers to the idea of facing your past, and the connections you have to earlier times in your life that you can’t move past.
-They spoke about the sense of nostalgia in the film, and the timelessness created by only going to a place once a year, seeing certain people once every few months, etc. There’s also an idea, I think, that time stops when you go on vacation, especially in this case when it’s such an unfamiliar place for Duncan and Pam, and it doesn’t seem like a real part of your life. I think those ideas made the film feel very similar in tone to these classic coming of age films, while giving it enough room to sort of pave its own way.
The Way, Way Back opens July 5th, though it’ll be opening in additional theatres throughout the following few weeks. You should definitely check it out if it’s playing near you. Let me know what you think when you see it!
(Oh, yeah. That happened.)
(All the pictures in this post came from Kim, who dutifully took pictures during the screening and then let me steal them for my own use. God bless you, Kimmie.)