By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
The nice thing about coming of age stories like directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “The Way Way Back,” about shy, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) trying to find a happy place in semi-dysfunctional circumstances, is really a bit of a personal conceit. Our own memories, small, large, earth-shattering and curiously trivial, come hurtling to the fore.
We replay the moments, good and bad, and can’t help wonder, teary-eyed or all smiles, how they shaped us. We cheer the protagonist’s chances. There is a cleansing optimism that attends the tabula rasa of youth, a buoyant naiveté Dickens aptly discoursed and titled “Great Expectations.” Of all the world’s inequities, there are few conditions our humanity deplores more than a stifled childhood.
So we immediately dislike Trent, Duncan’s mother’s boyfriend delineated with convincing disingenuousness by Steve Carell. On the drive to his beach house where the potential new family unit will spend their summer, he turns from the steering wheel of his fastidiously restored, classic Buick station wagon and asks Duncan what he thinks of himself…from 1 to 10. Hesitant, perturbed, the lad is finally badgered into answering.
“A 6,” he begrudgingly offers.
“Nah,” disagrees the car salesman and suitor to divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette), a caterer so obviously afraid to go it alone. “I’d say you’re a 3.”
Some way to start off a summer, huh? Of course the usual awkwardness and discomforts follow as Duncan is introduced to the next-door neighbors: a drunken, terribly candid but nonetheless goodhearted divorcée, portrayed by Allison Janney, and her three offspring. Psst. The middle one, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), just a smidgen older than Duncan, is a real cutie…though we doubt our boy will summon the gumption to engage her in conversation. Hopefully, we’re wrong.
You see, it’s all about epiphany. Cinema coxswains Faxon and Rash, who also penned the screenplay, competently set the summer’s picnic table of cerebral comestibles. This character is like this, that one’s like that, and this other one here is, well, yet another sort of hairpin… at once recognizable stereotypes and yet distinctive enough to make them worth our cognizance.
As such, we speculate who among the gaggle of tossed together vacationers will turn over a new leaf and who will depart us as the rats we figured they were right from the start.
Naturally, our greatest concern is for the seemingly displaced victim of a marriage gone bad…unfortunately the poster child of a sociological blip quite common to our day. To young Liam James’s credit, he harbors a complexity that trumps the hackneyed way this challenged victim is too often depicted.
He plays it close to the vest…difficult to read, and, as such, our concern is at first more academic than personal. Yet it’s these very layers of confounding uncertainty that lend traction to his travail and make it all the more worthwhile and credible when Duncan stumbles on what seems to be at least a temporary sanctuary.
It’s Water Wizz, a conspicuously outdated, funkily cozy water park presided over by the ceaselessly bantering Owen, played with good-natured humor by Sam Rockwell. He recalls the surrogate big brother every kid deserves. If, let us just say, when you were little and felt wronged during a softball game, and it caused you to run off into the woods thinking you hadn’t a friend in the world, you’d be lucky to have a counselor like Owen follow, console and cheeringly vanquish the overwhelming loneliness. Just sayin’.
Water Wizz becomes Duncan’s secret getaway where, among the carefree community of Peter Pan-like summer employees, he soon gains part-time employment and a life-affirming sobriquet that vouches he is much more than a 3. Meanwhile, back at the beach house, in stark contrast the skinny about Trent and his courtship with Pam unfolds. To thicken the plot, Susannah furtively follows Duncan to see where he goes every day.
The filmmakers nostalgically capture the mood and texture of summer whilst relating the watershed events that will direct Duncan’s life. We feel the sand beneath our sandals, the perennially warming sun lighting a path to the dreamy wishes and aspirations one hopes to have fulfilled before autumn arrives and so-called real-life resumes. It is a time of secrets, budding friendships and, maybe even a grand infatuation, if not a first love.
But the movie does much more than just recall a time and place. A happy childhood is a blessing, and woe to the fouled soul who would deny it. Thus, strewn among the seriocomic divulgences herein are the bitter truths youth must discern and face, the bugaboos that, as an adult, you will hopefully remember overcoming. Within the skillfully etched lessons of “The Way Way Back” is rooted the faith to confidently go forward.
“The Way Way Back,” rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and stars Liam James, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell. Running time: 103 minutes
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