Shy 14-year-old Duncan goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and her boyfriend's daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park.
Duncan (Liam James) is not a popular kid and it doesn't look like the summer is going to offer anything better for him. His mother's boyfriend has invited them to his beach house where Duncan is expected to improve his personality and physical appearance, and meet girls. But his would-be step-sister doesn't want anything to do with him and his shy demeanor makes it difficult for him to meet anybody new. When Duncan wanders into the Water Wizz, the local water park, he meets adult employees who are just having fun. Owen (Sam Rockwell) lets Duncan work with him and their new-found bond will help each other mature and find their place in life. Which for Duncan means standing up to his would-be step-father, having a conversation with the girl next door and being more comfortable with who he is.Written by
"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing"- Naomi Shihab Nye
Directed and co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who won an Oscar for the Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants, The Way Way Back is a warmhearted and beautifully realized teen comedy that is as poignant as it is funny. Though there are more coming-of-age films than references to God in the Bible, very few have really hit home for me as much as this one. Of course, there are the usual complaints from critics about how it "doesn't break any new ground" as if it was a construction site, but to me it felt fresh and alive with real and relatable characters far removed from the stereotypes of most films in this genre.
In the film, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is a sullen, withdrawn adolescent whose shaky self-image is not helped by his divorced mother Pam's (Toni Collette) and her obnoxious boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), or his snippy daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). On the drive to spend the summer at Trent's beach house called "The Riptide," Trent asks him how he would rate himself on a scale of one to ten. Not normally being asked to rate oneself, Duncan might have said "two thumbs up," if he thought about it, but all he can think of to say is a six.
When Trent tells him (calling him Buddy as he does throughout the film as if he has no name) that he thinks he is a three because he doesn't put himself out to people, he might think he is showing some tough love, but the result is that Duncan is pushed deeper into his shell. As Albert Einstein said, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." At the New England beach house as his mother tries to make everyone happy, Duncan has to deal with adults whose maturity level on a scale of one to ten might be so low as to be off the charts. There is the boozy and off-the-wall neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) as well as Trent's friends Kip and Joan (Robb Corddry and Amanda Peet), all engaging in what Betty calls "Spring break for adults."
To make matters more uncomfortable, Betty's daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who is slightly older than Duncan, tries to engage him in conversation but the stoop-shouldered boy is too withdrawn to respond. He is more at ease with Betty's younger son Peter (River Alexander) who is constantly being teased about his unfocused left eye. On one of his frequent bike rides on the pink bike he discovers in the garage, however, Duncan finds a kindred spirit at the Wizz World Water Park in the person of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park's manager. As are-free and ungrounded as some of the other adults in the film, Owen has one attribute the others lack. He has a terrific sense of humor and takes an interest in the people around him.
These include long-time employee Maya Rudolph (Caitlyn) who had only planned to stay one summer but is drawn back by Owen's charm and wit. Owen also takes an interest in Duncan but it is not the "brother you need help" attitude. He gives him a job at the park's pools and water slides to help boost his self-esteem, a job which neither Trent nor his mother know anything about. Sam Rockwell's performance as Owen is pitch-perfect. Even though his communication with Duncan is mostly full of wisecracks, there is an underlying connection between the two that is not based on need alone. Pure and simple, they like each other and it shows, as does the remarkable chemistry displayed by the entire ensemble cast.
Duncan's transformation happens gradually, however. As he finds himself being accepted by the park's employees, his shoulders begin to straighten out, there is a hint of a smile on his face as well as a new look of confidence. Lian James, a Vancouver actor, not only disappears into the role of Duncan, he is Duncan and his struggle to reconnect with the world he has been estranged from is so honest and painful that we identify with him and want to help him, in Langston Hughes words, "to break his shadow into a thousand lights of sun." As in many great films, The Way Way Back has laughter and tears in equal measure.
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