Where I grew up in Maine was just far enough from the ocean that having a meaningful relationship with it meant renting a cottage at Old Orchard Beach. As a boy, there’s nothing as magical as the combination of Atlantic breezes, the beach and an amusement park. I had the sense on those trips that life couldn’t get much better, so I was curious when I came across a movie about a young person for whom that seaside scenario somehow represents adolescence at its most vexing.
A movie like The Way Way Back is a keeper in the coming-of-age canon. Liam James gives an expertly calibrated performance as disenchanted 14 year-old Duncan. The opening succeeds in explaining how a kid could dread a Summer on the coast. His father’s bailed, his mother’s serious about the guy behind the wheel and, even though he’s played by Steve Carell, the new man in both their lives is a dick.
Eyes stern in the rearview, Trent adopts a parental tone to ask where the boy would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. The women-his teenage daughter (Zoe Levin) and Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) are asleep. Would he ask if they were awake? Taken aback, Duncan guesses “a 6,” only to be corrected. “I think you’re a 3.” Trent, at whose vacation home this Summer is about to be survived, pretends to motivate but clearly has nothing in mind beyond some fish-in-a-barrel bullying.
The film marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Oscar winners for their adaptation of The Descendants. Their friendship’s a pretty good story in itself. The two met as members of LA’s Groundlings fifteen years ago and have navigated the shark-infested waters of showbiz using the buddy system. A writing team specializing in domestic dramedy, each is also an actor. Both make highly entertaining appearances here.
What they do unusually well in their scripts is capture the way grown ups and children occupy parallel universes which can intersect to profoundly comic-or comically profound-effect. Duncan wearies of watching Trent, his mother and their Summer friends (Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet and Allison Janney at their boozy best) behave like they’re on Spring break and escapes to a park called Water Wizz (real place, real name) where he finally encounters a grown up he can relate to.
That’s because Owen (Sam Rockwell at his best, period) is a classic specimen of that movie species, the cool guy suspended between youth and adulthood. Think Bill Murray in Meatballs. Sensing that the boy’s struggling to fit in, he takes him under his wing. It’s the beginning not only of a beautiful friendship but of a series of offbeat, touching character studies and, natch, the Summer that’ll change Duncan’s life.
Faxon and Rash don’t reinvent the teen wheel here, just give it a fresh spin. We know where things are headed but enjoy the ride anyway because we’re in such great company and such capable hands. Carell does the against type thing and scores his strongest performance in years. The dialogue’s never showy but always spectacular and Rockwell proves there isn’t a nut he can’t crack.
His character is irresponsible, damaged, goodhearted and just force-of-nature funny. Which may be why Maya Rudolph, as his exasperated girlfriend, resists running for her life. A movie’s got a lot going on when Rudolph barely squeaks into a review’s final graph. This one does and is well worth 103 minutes of your Summer. It’s a moving bit of business about a boy learning the secret to making life a day at the beach and the best work yet from two guys who really do go way way back.