Looking for a Friday night movie that'll give you chills without all the noise? Forget The Purge or World War Z. See The Way, Way Back instead. Maybe you have to be a parent for this drama to keep you on the edge of your seat. But The Way, Way Back is the quietly satisfying story of a teenage boy struggling through a miserable, angst-ridden summer with his newly-divorced mom at her boyfriend's beach house.
We meet 14-year-old Duncan in the rear-facing back seat of a station wagon, hence the name of the movie. Duncan pretty much sits in the back seat of life as well, though because this is a coming-of-age movie you know that will change. It's a relief when Duncan finally starts coming alive. But before that happens, we have to endure his mother's boyfriend, Trent.
He's played by Steve Carell, absent every ounce of charm he's ever shown in his other roles, and that includes Michael Scott in The Office. Trent is a defensive bully, nastily projecting his insecurity on every weak creature within reach -- especially Duncan. And that's not even when he's at his worst. Toni Collette plays Duncan's mom, Pam, blinded temporarily to what Duncan is going through thanks to the love goggles she's wearing. But she makes tender efforts to reach out to her son, efforts Duncan more or less rebuffs.
(And here I just have to say -- as the newly-single mom of a boy five years younger than Duncan... yikes. I had a hard time not reading this movie as a cautionary tale. May I never put my son through this hell. But anyway.)
If you're swimming in the deep end as a parent, yearning to stay connected to a kid who needs to separate from you, teetering between responsibility and the lure of careless adult behavior, a lot of this movie will feel familiar. Maybe uncomfortably so. From the beginning, the summer beach house scene is Rumspringa for adults. They fall to drinking immediately.
We see this through the eyes of their children. As each night wears on, they lose their parents to their boozy bachanals. The teens hang back, vaguely disgusted by their parents, longing for their presence, defiantly claiming their independence. What would they do with their parents' attention, even if they had it? But teens like having the rights of refusal.
Duncan turns out all right. The manager of a nearby water park (Sam Rockwell) takes him under his wing, gives him a job, and helps him find himself. The pretty girl next door, played by Sophie Robb, takes in interest in him as well. There's a moment when Pam finally sees what her son has been up to all summer, how he's bloomed under someone else's care. Even if you're trying to be a fully-present parent, it's a moment we all experience from time to time -- part relief that someone is helping you, part terror that you've missed out, that maybe you're totally inept as a mother.
All of this may sound like The Way, Way Back is just a massive cringe-fest, but it's not. It's funny and wonderful as well -- especially Sam Rockwell's bits with Maya Rudolph. Pam wises up and redeems herself in the end. Co-written and directed by Oscar-winning Descendants screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, it has some of the same quiet pleasures of that film. Most of all, I appreciated seeing some of the tender gestures and missteps of parenting played out without melodrama.
Had you heard about The Way, Way Back before?
Image via movieclipsTRAILERS/YouTube