If you ask me – and you’re reading this post, so let’s assume you did – one of the great Hollywood mysteries of our era is why Sam Rockwell is not a bigger star. He’s funny and charismatic, he can do nuanced dramatic roles, and the man can dance like nobody’s business. Most of all, he seems like a guy who would be really fun to hang with, and isn’t that what being a movie star is all about? His role in The Way, Way Back, an intermittently hilarious and deeply sad coming-of-age story, seems tailor-made for a star with these qualities. His character, Owen, is the fun-lovin’, kind-hearted much older friend of the film’s teenage protagonist, so we basically spend the whole movie just hanging out with him. It’s time well-spent.
The teenager in question is Duncan (Liam James), who has been brought to a small beach community for the summer to suffer at the hands of his mother (Toni Colette) and her dickish boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, surprisingly effective as a bad guy), and a cadre of emotionally-absent, irresponsible fortysomethings (Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and Allison Janney). With trouble at home, he finds a new family at the local water park, the comically-named (but never commented on) Water Wizz. There he finds a mentor, friend, and father figure in Owen, the park’s gleefully immature manager who seems to know all the right buttons to push in order to help Duncan grow up and have a great summer while he’s at it.
It’s not as clichéd as it sounds. Things may get a little too generic and romanticized at times – although the subtle cruelty Trent inflicts upon Duncan feels scarily specific – but that’s a forgivable flaw in a coming-of-age story because we all look back at our teenage years through sepia tones. It also helps to have such a stellar cast, with even minor roles filled by actors who can make an impression. Colette’s sad single mom is, in some ways, the dark heart of the movie, and Janney is a comic force of nature – the two act as counterpoints, in a way, showing different ways divorce can change a person. Carell is just excellent as the aging preppy dirtbag, a very different role than those we are used to seeing the funnyman in.
But Rockwell remains the stand-out, and his performance stands as a shining example of how good acting can elevate a script. On the page, Owen is nothing more than a slight variation on the famous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a quirky, beautiful female character who exists only to help the male lead overcome his problems. Owen is almost too perfect, and seems dropped in from heaven to help Duncan become a man – even his most irresponsible decisions end up panning out. Further, we learn virtually nothing of his backstory, with only hints that he, too, had a crappy father.
But who cares when you’re hanging with a guy who is this much fun? In between childish antics, Rockwell hints at a darker inner life and betrays in his eyes a wisdom beyond his years. When he explains to the kid how Trent’s cruelty stems from his own inadequacies – not Duncan’s – and Duncan asks him how he knows, Rockwell’s line reading of the answer – “Because I know” – conveys his character’s rich, complex inner life in just three words. It’s an indelible performance, the kind that should be remembered at Oscar time but probably won’t.
Which is not to say that The Way, Way Back is a perfect film, but its flaws are explainable and serve a purpose. For example, the tonal shifts between levity and sadness are often jarring, and I can’t help but think that experienced filmmakers – Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are experienced writers but first-time directors – could have forged a more consistent feel. But this approach pays off at times, as spending ample time in the dark makes us even more grateful for the light. Further, the characters are a bit too black-and-white. Owen, as we have already noted, is the mentor every troubled teenage boy ever wanted, and Trent is probably too much of a jerk to be realistic. But the world does seem black and white to a teenager: some guys seem like the epitome of cool, and some fathers just suck.
Despite these minor flaws, The Way, Way Back is an easy movie to recommend. Even if you don’t connect to it as deeply as I did, you’ll be glad you saw it. With explosions, high body counts, and special effects, most summer movies seem designed to melt your face off. The best compliment I can give The Way, Way Back is that you’ll leave the theater with your face fully intact – and wearing a smile, no less. If memory serves, that’s what good summer movies are supposed to do.
My Rating: See it in the Theater