There's a lot to unpack in The Way Way Back. The terrific new ensemble comedy/drama considers a summer holiday spent in coastal Massachusetts — the kind of vacation where the same people go back to the same place every year and party with the same friends they always have, where they went when they were kids.
Trent (Steve Carell, excellently playing against type as the jackass) is taking his newish girlfriend, the recently divorced Pam (Toni Collette), and her grieving son, Duncan (Liam James), to his vacation home; Trent's on home turf, and we're introduced, as are Pam and Duncan, to his friends. There's Betty (Allison Janney, perfection), the single mom next door who talks Gilmore Girls-fast, knows no boundaries, and is always working on a beer buzz; Duncan notices her hot daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Joining in the party are the couple Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry). They rock out to Mr. Mister. Duncan escapes to Water Wizz, an Adventure River-type park where he befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell, spectacular), a ham who tries to break Duncan out of his hunched-over shell.
The Way Way Back works on so many levels. It's hilarious across the spectrum, from broad comedy to quirky, funny moments that invigorate supporting characters. The movie also has a great line that name-drops Memphis — I can't stop smiling about it, so I won't spoil it for you. It's a non-showy, sweet romantic comedy, particularly between Owen and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph, routinely inhabiting characters who possess a righteous, generous wisdom).
The film is also a barbed critique of contemporary parenting and grownups who won't grow up. The adults, once assembled, become a kind of single unit of bad behavior: a moveable beast that's over-drunk, over-high, over-sharing, oversexed, and overly permissive except when they're overly rigid. Once the party starts, the kids are left to fend for themselves, physically and emotionally. At least Joan and Kip don't have children ... oh, God, what if they do and we just never see them?
The film's consideration of the adults, reeling kids, and missing dads presents a universal pang about broken homes leveled by divorce, but it also makes an indictment of Gen X specifically. The soundtrack and cultural signifiers continually point right at those who grew up in the '80s and loved their formative years so much they never want them to end. Trent and Owen, particularly, avoid adulthood: Trent drives the same kind of station wagon his dad took him to the beach in, in cherry condition; Owen drives a perfectly studied convertible that's "just the right amount of shitty." Imagine if the kids from Adventureland grew up obsessing about that one perfect summer, not able to let it go?
The film smartly lets all that simmer on the backburner, avoiding indulging in meanness, however deserved, and instead focusing on the grace notes earned by Duncan and his struggle to overcome these obstacles. Character comedians Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar winners for The Descendants) write, direct, and act in the film. I want to envelop them in a bear hug.
The Way Way Back
Opens Friday, July 19th
Ridgeway Cinema Grill