With a cast that thrives when charged with carrying a story without the aid of giant robots or zombies, “The Way Way Back” acts as a salve for those feeling bludgeoned by mid-air battles and fart jokes. It seems tailored for the indie film crowd. But, it also offers something else, something not seen in movies often anymore-a powerful connection to your childhood summers.
The film rages against all that big budget summer blockbusters stand for. Or rather, it would rage against that sort of thing, if films like this raged at all. In the story, young Duncan (Liam James) and his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), are off to spend a summer at the beach house of Pam’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). As the 14-year-old struggles to pass the days, he befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), the charismatic proprietor of the local waterslide park. Owen hires Duncan to help out and, thus begins the boy’s coming-of-age journey. And at the advice of Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the cute girl next door, he keeps the job a secret. She knows some journeys are best taken alone.
Thanks to the setting and Duncan’s moments of embarrassment, self-discovery, pain, joy and love, I was reminded of my summers spent at a waterslide park tucked next to the highway in the area where I grew up. My friends and I would spend day after day in the modest wave pool or trying to sneak past the tanned lifeguard monitoring the top of the slides or working up the courage to talk to the cute brunette who went to the rival school. And of course, each of us claimed that someday we’d be the one to pull the legendary maneuver of going completely upside down in the tube on Slide 1′s buttonhook turn.
Sure, the park was falling apart. Whether or not Slide 3 would be roped off for repairs on any given day remained a summer-long bet. But, the churning blue water and sun-bleached concrete belied the magic of the place. The kind of magic that taught you losing your swimsuit after bodysurfing a particularly bitchin’ wave didn’t mean you had to go live in a cave for the rest of your life to avoid merciless teasing.
At that park, anything could happen, even for a pudgy kid like me who had a face like a topographical map of a very greasy country. One day, after chugging a large Dr. Pepper and crushing the cup with one hand, I even gained the strength to ask out that brunette. She might have had the comparable strength to say no, but at least I asked.
The Way Way Back captures that feeling expertly and does so without getting overly nostalgic or saccharine. The cast and crew let the film get out of the way of your own connections. It’s brave to trust the audience to do that and it works to remarkable effect. (The representation is so accurate, there’s even talk of a difficult waterslide maneuver.)
All that said, the performances are incredible. Newcomer James plays Duncan’s teen awkwardness with amazing purity. Clearly, he doesn’t even fit in when in his element, let alone when he’s whisked away to strange beach town. And Carell so deftly portrays the uncaring Trent, that you’ll end up retroactively hating his character from The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The standout characters for me, however, were Owen and Betty (Allison Janney). Like with the feeling of summer captured in the film, the writer-director team of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for their adaptation of The Descendents, knew to get out of the way of Rockwell and Janney. The two actors spray energy and charisma like a lawn sprinkler.
As for that waterslide park from my childhood, it got an infusion of money one fall and they renovated the whole place. It got more and more crowded each summer. My friends and I went back for one last day. As I stood at the top of the slide tower, waiting my turn to go, I realized I was noticeably older and taller than everyone else in line. I looked out over the facilities where I’d spent so much of my adolescent summers. Neither it nor I was the same anymore.
The lifeguard, who may have been a few years younger than me, waved me up for my turn. It was to be my last time down the slide, my last time blasting through the buttonhook turn on Slide 1. Crouched down like a runner on the blocks. The guard blew his whistle and I leapt headfirst onto the tube.
And on that final trip down Slide 1, on the buttonhook turn, I felt my body swing up, up, up and completely over in the tube.
My friends didn’t believe me, but they didn’t have to. Some journeys are best taken alone.
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|The father of twin boys, David Vienna is a screenwriter, playwright, former journalist, and spent a few years writing for reality television. He covers parenting issues at TheDaddyComplex.com and The Huffington Post.|
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Disclosure: Big Honcho Media sponsored this post. They sound super official and stuff, but don’t be fooled. Their name is just a ruse. All the opinions and statements made here, including the awkward ones, were done under the influence of sleep deprivation and are our own. Big Honcho (not a mafia outfit) paid for this post, and provided a screening of the movie. Feel free to email David questions about his red bandana and, perhaps, why he thinks it’s okay to lose swimtrunks at a waterpark. What’s that all about?