Putting Away Childish Things

It’s unfortunate that one of this year’s best films won’t get the wide theatrical release it deserves. So, for those of you not lucky enough to see the indie sensation The Way Way Back in theaters, then start counting down the days until its subsequent home video release.

The Way Way Back tells the story of boyfriend/girlfriend duo Pam (Toni Collette) and Trent (Steve Carell), who take a trip to Trent’s beach house with her son Duncan (Liam James) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) in tow. Trent repeatedly talks about the communal effort required to make this new “family” work, but his own efforts are misguided at best and toxic at worst. Duncan can’t stand him and starts to suspect that Trent may be more than friendly with long-time pal Joan (Amanda Peet). To escape the annoying adults around him, Duncan frequents the local water park, Water Wizz, where he befriends manager Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen becomes something of a surrogate father for Duncan and gives him not only emotional support but a job in which he flourishes. But when things come to a head between Pam and Trent, events threaten to shatter the safe space that Duncan has created for himself with his new-found friends.

So many things work to perfection in The Way, Way Back and they all seem to be constructed around a network of dualities. Briefly outlining these will also shed some light on the central themes that the film addresses.

  • Humor and Heartache: The film, in measured fashion, swings from comedic highs to heartbreaking lows, and this juxtaposition heightens the humor and sadness of each.
  • Nostalgia and Progression: The poster reads, “We’ve all been there,” and the film does a marvelous job of capturing the connections we often feel to special times and moments in our young lives. Yet the way it simultaneously revels in this nostalgia and thoughtfully pushes through it to expose it for what it is takes the narrative to another level.
  • Assurance and Openness: Closely tied to the tension between nostalgia and moving on is the realization that we can move through life in one of two ways. Trent is frustrated by Duncan’s lack of self-esteem and assurance of what he wants in life and how he can go about getting it. Early in the film, Trent actually rates Duncan on a scale of 1-10, and his assessment is not glowing. On the other hand, Owen consistently encourages Duncan to find his own path…to make his own way in life. This is not the same thing as saying “anything goes,” which is very much the mentality of the adults hovering around Trent’s beach house. Duncan and Owen are fiercely “moral” characters who stand up for what is right.
  • Trent and Owen: Closely tied to the theme of moral guidance is the topic of fatherhood or, better put, parenthood. It is painfully clear that Duncan is in desperate need of someone to unconditionally love, care for, and defend him. His mother Pam is too caught up in her relationship with Trent to be emotionally available to him. Trent is too concerned with his extracurricular activities and hiding them from Pam. Ironically, it is Owen, a seemingly emotionally immature water park manager, who rescues and defends Owen. The ways in which writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash underplay this tension, particularly in scenes that could have exploded with hyper-masculinity, is a sign of their understanding that, in writing, less can often be so much more.
  • Pam and Betty: Both Pam and Trent’s neighbor Betty (Allison Janney,) have suffered failed marriages. Pam is clearly moving on (medicating?) with Trent. Betty chooses booze and humor and, as such, seems to have found her own silver lining. Janney gets to have all the fun and, as a result, owns the film from the first second she appears. Not since Viola Davis in Doubt has someone demanded the Oscar for best supporting actress as efficiently as Janney.
  • Duncan and Peter: Duncan is desperately awash at sea with no mental or emotional guidance from his elders. Betty’s son Peter (River Alexander) has been abandoned too but seems to have adopted his mother’s humorous, resilient spirit. Peter handles his marginalized place in life with an attitude well beyond his years, which might be one of the film’s few flaws (he’s almost got it too together). It takes the older Duncan more time to come to terms with his place in the world and the choices that adults make around him. As I mentioned above, Owen helps, but so does Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
  • Steph and Susanna: Trent’s daughter Steph and Betty’s daughter Susanna are like outside observers of the events taking place at their respective beach houses. Their different reactions parallel the responses of their peers and elders alike. Steph seems content to careen down the path her elders have paved, drinking all day, making fun of others, breaking up with her boyfriend, and alienating Duncan. Susanna, on the other hand, rises above it all and sees her mother’s (and the other adults’) behavior for what it is, a sign of emotional brokenness and immaturity. Like Owen, she cares for Duncan and her tenderness towards him is terribly moving.

The Way, Way Back takes viewers on the best of emotional rides that never feels overly manipulative thanks in large part to the understated writing by Faxon and Rash and the brilliant acting by everyone involved. It’s easily one of the best films of the year (along with Mud and The Act of Killing).

The Way, Way Back (103 mins.) is currently in theaters and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.