dir: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Coming of age stories… what would cinema be without them? It’d all be giant robots and zombies and werewolves and cars smashing all over the place, hopefully all in the same movie.
Their virtue is that they’re meant to be universally relatable, both to troubled teens and their dull, enervated parents who very faintly remember what it was like to be a troubled teen. It’s a way of reliving highly charged times, and vicariously, in some cases, getting it right this time around.
The Way Way Back, it’s pretty obvious, was initially written to be set in the 1980s. It had to have been considering the sheer abundance of 80s references and marginalia. However, someone must have decided that you could just set it contemporarily, not have people wandering around with iPhones and tight pants slightly drooping down at the crotch, and you could have the best of both worlds, as dubious a concept as that might be.
The lead character is Duncan (Liam James), a shrinking violet if ever a violet shrunk. He has good cause. His parents have divorced recently, which is bad enough, but her new partner, Trent (Steve Carrell) is the classic kind of arsehole these stories invariably require. Everyone needs obstacles to overcome, and quite often those obstacles are the people that treat you like shit.
I don’t know if it’s a classic strategy of new boyfriends resenting their girlfriend’s sons as some kind of masculine threat, ones that need to be dominated and controlled so as to not pose a threat to their own dominance, because I have no experience of this, but this Trent guy, wow, what a piece of work. Carrell sometimes plays oblivious degenerate characters, but this one is pretty much irredeemable, an irredeemable piece of shit. You loathe him just minutes into the flick, and it doesn’t abate, even if he doesn’t do anything that awful (he’s not physically abusive). He has this superior, oppressive way of talking to people that just makes you want to murder him in his sleep.
The conversation between Trent and Duncan in a very old model station wagon, that looks to be in suspiciously good nick, sets the tone for the painful dynamics Duncan has to live with, at least during this summer holiday to Cape Cod. The accusation is that Duncan isn’t trying hard enough, and that he’s something of an ungainly lump, and that he barely qualifies, if at all, as a worthwhile person.
Weren’t most of us, at some stage, during our adolescence? Duncan takes it a bit further, being almost completely isolated and shut down, his every facial expression a wince of pain, his every movement a constrained, hunched product of just how much he doesn’t want to be in this particular world at this particular time.
He doesn’t do himself many favours. He views his mother’s (Toni Collette) increasing closeness with Trent, and binge drinking, with disdain, and something akin to jealousy. He resents the time she’s spending with other adults, including a loud-mouthed and perpetually drunk neighbour (Alison Janney), but he doesn’t really want to spend time with them anyway, even if they weren’t boozing and getting stoned and staying out all night.
He’s fourteen, for crying out loud. You’d think he’d be old enough to look after himself, but that’s the point of these kinds of stories: finding out who you are, and where you belong, in time.
Forced to find somewhere else to spend his time away from the holiday house he so despises, he eventually ends up at the local water fun park, called Water Wizz. The reason he ends up there is not because of any deep love of water sports, whatever they may be, but because he gravitates towards a character who might as well be wearing a hat that says “Adult Mentor Figure” across its brow. Sam Rockwell, who’s quite often a loud, brash, wonderful character in movies, plays this role like he’s Bill Murray in Meatballs. I’m aware that’s a dated reference, but the resemblance is uncanny. He is as energetic and extroverted as Duncan is meek and unsure of himself.
Of course Rockwell overdoes it, because you need that for this kind of charismatic character. If he seems a bit obnoxious, or too much, perhaps we’re meant to see this Owen character through Duncan’s eyes, because Duncan has nothing but adulation and adoration for Owen. That frame is perhaps tempered by the way in which the manager (Maya Rudolph) at the fun park, who had some kind of romantic entanglement with Owen, routinely tells him how immature and tiring his shtick is getting.
With mentor figures like this, you can wonder whether the fixation of the main, kid character on such a manic individual is because in them they’ve found the father figure they so desperately crave, or whether this mentor is a mentor because the kid so much wishes he could have that same level of confidence in himself and ease with other people, ie. he wants to grow up to be like him. I guess they’re not mutually exclusive, are they?
Some people want to grow up to be like their father figures, and they actually like them as well. Other, more unfortunate people hate their father figures for all the awfulness they’ve done and that they embody, and yet grow up to be just like them as well. It’s too early for us to know with Duncan, but we would certainly wish for him to end up more like Owen and less like Trent.
Even as Duncan starts to flower from working at the park, and from the approval of Owen and the people around them, the situation at home worsens mostly because the reality of his mother’s relationship becomes more and more apparent, because a scumbag like Trent isn’t going to see the need to not be an arsehole when he’s so comfortable being one. I don’t think Duncan gives a good goddamn about Trent, but it’s the position his mother is in that frustrates him. It’s all well and good to want your mother to leave a shitty boyfriend. It’s another thing entirely to understand the reasons why your mother might not be able to, and why.
Of course Duncan doesn’t give a stuff about that. He is the main character, he is growing into a less awkward and less fearful person, but, like any teenager, it’s all about him. He is, despite the sweetness he eventually displays, a pretty self-centred kid. But we’re meant to be urging him on, to want him to stand up to the people in his life that are bringing him misery, and to embrace the disappointments and disillusionments that come along, and to craft them into something meaningful without letting them define him as a person. That’s all well and good, but it’s all really about making him become a person more like the male jerks and dweebs at the fun park rather than forge his own path in life.
One scene in particular bugged me a bit, when one of the water slide attendants teaches Duncan how to use their limited power in order to perve on girls in bikinis. It’s played for laughs, of course, and we’re meant to find it charming and delightful. Ultimately, though, we’re watching a guy in his forties hold up a queue of people in order to ogle a teenage girl in a bikini, to leer at her along with Owen, as a confused Duncan looks on, and this is meant to be one of his life lessons? We see Duncan repeat this tactic later on, with a pervy kind of smile on his face, and it kind of bugged me a bit. As if a teenage boy needed any help objectifying women.
Since Duncan is undergoing a complete transformation from shrinking, compulsive masturbating loser to a god-like figure that strides amidst us like a colossus looming over pygmies, you’d have to assume that getting with a girl would have to be on the list of Things He Must Do To Become a Man. Well, thankfully, since this might be set somewhere nebulous in 1980s-2010s Land, and not in the actual 80s, no-one takes him to an actual whorehouse to pop his cherry. He’s fourteen, for crying out loud. It suffices that a girl just like him, despite his bewildering array of faults, so it’s not moving towards something even I would have had trouble watching. The chaste love interest is the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). The weird thing with her is that she starts off confident and popular, and seems to become less so as the flick goes on. As Duncan rises in the world, she declines, which is unfair to her but great for Duncan!
It’s not a stretch to say that I have provided the exact same procedure for many of the women I’ve know over the years, none of which appreciate it very much. What can I say; it’s easier to bring them down to your level rather than raise yourself up to theirs. Even with that being common between us, I didn’t really relate (at all) to Duncan’s character, but I felt where he was coming from, and the world they create for his self-fulfilment is an enjoyable one even if it isn’t always believable. The film would have totally fallen apart without Sam Rockwell’s character, but even then there’s enough for us to be drawn in by with this world in which there aren’t winners and losers (except for Trent), just people trying to figure out how to get by without being too shitty to one another.
I can appreciate that. Everyone should be able to appreciate that. People who don’t… well, there’s always next summer holidays as an opportunity for you to change.
7 times they even have breakdancing on cardboard in the film and yet still pretend it’s contemporary out of 10
“She called me a C U Next Tuesday! To my face! Can you believe that?” – I can believe anything you say; it’s my revenge against the world – The Way Way Back