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The dysfunctional family. It’s a classic motif in coming-of-age films, most likely because it seems to work time and time again. We’ve seen it in films ranging from Stand by Me to Submarine, via The Squid and the Whale. It provides challenges for the protagonist to overcome and experiences that will often see them look at life from a different viewpoint. The family unit can be a vehicle through which everyone betters themselves – a family in a vehicle proves exactly this point in the delightfully tender Little Miss Sunshine. The weakened ties between family members are employed to brilliant effect in the latest coming-of-age gem, The Way Way Back.
A shy and retiring 14-year-old, Duncan (Liam James), is forced to spend the summer on the coast with his recently-divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her new dickhead of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). At first, it seems like a miserable waste of time – he’d much rather visit his real dad – until things start to look brighter when he unexpectedly lands a job at the local water park and begins talking to the girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb).
Everything about Duncan screams that this is someone who wishes to remain out of the spotlight. He walks with his head down and his back hunched; his body language consists entirely of subconscious body movements that lower him in an attempt to make himself invisible. And invisibility is something which he often masters: hiding behind corners and under windows, he is always watching, always listening, but rarely noticed. Despite his quiet outlook, it’s clear he knows a lot and thus has a lot to think about.
He’s an outsider who understands the workings of the inside but is never able to cross that boundary due to his own personal limitations – his adolescent awkwardness dictates his life. As a character study, therefore, The Way Way Back is immediately interesting. The complexities written into these people by the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, ensure that whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert (or somewhere in between), there will be a part that is relatable; like the tagline on the poster states, “We’ve All Been There”.
Returning to the topic of vehicles for a second, it is perhaps no coincidence that the opening scene takes place in a moving car. In such close proximity for extended periods of time, it’s almost inevitable that conflict and tension will grow. Sitting with his back to the family looking outwards, Duncan is in ‘the way way back’ of the family station wagon. Perhaps he is apprehensive of what lies ahead, whether that is his future, the summer or, on a more literal level, the man behind the steering wheel, Trent.
Carell is exceptionally odious as the boyfriend, with the initial scene setting his character up straight away. After asking Duncan what he thinks he is on a scale of one to ten, Duncan reluctantly claims he’s a six. Trent then replies, “I think you’re a three.” It’s this kind of emotional belittlement that makes Trent so unlikable. He forces his personality on Duncan, due to him being vulnerable, and never gives him the space to find his own; his opinion is seemingly the only one that matters. It’s no wonder then that the pair almost come to blows in one especially moving scene. Some may see these scenes featuring interaction between the two as Trent attempting to be supportive, albeit in a fairly insensitive manner, but there’s no question the scars he leaves only further Duncan’s justification of his low self-esteem.
Duncan is always distanced from those around him, whether it’s in the back of the car, at the beach or sat at the end of the dinner table with nothing but empty space in his direct eyeline. The group of adults sit across from each other, another unconscious act that further isolates Duncan from everyone else. And that’s because the vacation is more for the adults than the kids. There’s a clear role reversal between the grown-ups and the teenagers, with the adults behaving irresponsibly (going off to get drunk and smoke weed) whilst the kids look on in shame.
Alison Janney is hilarious as the loudmouthed Betty from the beach house next door, who’s pretty much never seen without a drink in her hand: “I’ve fallen off the wagon! Accept it and move on!” Her one-liners are both shocking and side-splitting, especially when they’re about her lazy-eyed son, Peter (River Alexander). But like in the classic teenage angst film Rebel Without a Cause, there’s an obvious generation gap at the heart of it all and this is a major source of hostility. Family ties are tested by this central motif: the consequences of the inherent void created by these differences are deep and longstanding.
In addition to the seminal James Dean film, there are many parallels between The Way Way Back and other coming-of-age tales, as well as films featuring dysfunctional families. Little Miss Sunshine is perhaps the most notable of these with its similarities: the quiet, misunderstood son; the overbearing father figure; the emotionally fractured but loving mother struggling to hold the family together. The latter is portrayed with unassuming and heartbreaking authenticity by Collette in both. Here, she is plagued by uncertainty and resorts to hiding her emotions. She is perhaps the only adult who is observational enough to notice there’s something hidden under Duncan’s soundless façade. She has her own problems, which she, and the audience, is aware of; her relationship with her son is often strengthened by empathy, but that’s not to say there’s always full understanding.
Duncan eventually finds a place where he feels he belongs at Water Wizz, the slightly rundown water park. Sam Rockwell is consistently uproarious as Owen, the carefree employee, who’s often neglecting the safety elements of his job but it’s always with other people’s enjoyment and feelings in mind. He takes Duncan under his wing and their thread is one of the most emotionally fulfilling in the film. A large percentage of the laughs (of which there are many) stem from the array of characters at Water Wizz, with Rockwell’s fast-talking attitude taking the crown. Maya Rudolph is equally brilliant as Caitlin, Owen’s partner in both work and life, who tries to keep him grounded. The water park is the epitome of the summer holiday: its youth and innocence represent what Duncan what would like to achieve on a personal level but is unable to with his family.
You’re unlikely to find anything wildly original in The Way Way Back but it does have enough distinctions for it to stand out as its own film with its own tone. It follows, or rather displays, several common tropes often seen in coming-of-age films, so thematically it’s very familiar, but what makes it successful throughout is that it is never derivative and is always immensely satisfying. Funny, sweet and charming, it’s the perfect summer film.