The directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Way, Way Back shows the evolution of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) from adolescence into adulthood as he and his all-star castmates tease, flirt and scream their way through the film. Faxon and Rash’s names may sound familiar, and if they don’t, then you’ve probably seen their faces. Nat Faxon starred in Fox’s Ben and Kate (as Ben) and Jim Rash appeared in multiple seasons of NBC’s Community as Dean Pelton. They were also two of the writers for the Academy Award winning screenplay of The Descendants, which gives them the perfect background for the directing the poignant, yet humorous, coming-of-age story that is The Way, Way Back.
Faxon and Rash also hold small comedic roles in the film as employees of Water Wizz, a waterpark with a name that seems like it cannot be real (there is, however, a true-life Water Wizz). The waterpark is Duncan’s escape from his mother’s emotionally abusive boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and, more generally, from those around him, who often just forget he exists. The film opens with Duncan, his mom, Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend driving to Cape Cod to spend the summer as a family. It ends up becoming a “spring break for adults” with Duncan having to take care of himself.
For fans of The Office, or of Steve Carell in general, it’s shocking to see how well he plays a hyper-masculine jerk. He plainly tells Duncan that on a ten-point scale, he considers him to be three. You get the feeling that he’s trying to be the stern, father figure, but he just seems to come off as an ass. In the face of this difficulty, Duncan does what any teenager would do: mope, scowl and slouch around. You try to sympathize with him, but for the beginning of the film you just pity the kid.
James plays Duncan so well that it hurts to watch. It’s one of the most accurate portrayals of teenage awkwardness I’ve ever seen in a film. He hunches, mumbles, doesn’t have witty or clever responses and just seems to take the lot he’s given. At points I had to cover my eyes to avoid discomfort. But coming out of your shell isn’t always graceful, and The Way, Way Back embraces that. When the girl living next door (AnnaSophia Robb) hears his horrible rendition REO Speedwagon and asks if he’s a fan, Duncan replies, in the most awkward and obviously false way possible, his mom put it on his iPod. He is the antithesis of smooth.
The catalyst for Duncan’s transformation is Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager at Water Wizz who seems more like a teenage dude than a 30-year-old man. Rockwell is accompanied by the quirky staff of Water Wizz, including Maya Rudolph as Owen’s sometimes-girlfriend, as well as Faxon and Rash. Together they teach Duncan important life lessons, from standing up for oneself to ogling girls by the water slides. Soon after, Duncan starts hanging around Water Wizz until Owen just decides to hire him. The first day one the job, Duncan starts to come out of his shell. When told to break up a dance-off in the park, the kids ask Duncan to dance and shockingly, he does. It is a painful sight to see, but he’s living it up and the crowd cheers him on for trying. Henceforth, Duncan is aptly nicknamed “Pop N’ Lock” and a good nickname is usually the first step towards becoming cool. He becomes part of the Water Wizz family, but the focal point remains his home life, including the relationship between his mother and Trent. Collette plays an emotional wreck, and for those that are familiar with her previous roles (United States of Tara, About a Boy), it’s not a far stretch. Trent and Pam party, drink and eat with other adults (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), seemingly forgetting about their parental responsibilities unless Duncan doesn’t come home.
Duncan grows and comes into his own, but it is left quite open-ended. You see his moments of realization and development, but it yields very little independence because in the end, he’s 14. Faxon and Rash are careful to steer clear of the too familiar family movie plot line, keeping the story real, and many times painfully realistic. Somehow, they are able to do so in a serious fashion while throwing in laugh-out-loud moments throughout the film. It could have been a little deeper, but, after all, the film is supposed to take place from Duncan’s point-of-view. The heavy hints of nostalgia and beach weather keep the film lighthearted — everyone is living in the bubble of summer — but the story does have some meat behind it. Let us remember, however, that Duncan is a supremely awkward teenager living on the beach in Cape Cod, not Precious.
Nicole Hamilton is a Junior in the College of Art, Architecture, and Planning. She can be reached at email@example.com.