Thursday, December 12, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—The Way Way Back (2013) ***½

PG-13, 103 min.
Directors/Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, River Alexander, Zoe Levin, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

I asked my boys if they had any special word for the back row of seats in the minivan. They didn’t, and I felt the sense of loss that the summer movie “The Way Way Back” conveys at times. When I was a youth, “the way way back” referred to the back section of the station wagon—the minivans of the day. The back section held all the luggage, but many of them also contained a third seat row that faced the back of the car. The way way back was alternately the best place to travel and the worst. Since there was no well for your legs in the back, it was really a place only suitable for small children. Of course, safety tests eventually proved it wasn’t actually suitable for anyone. If you requested the way way back, it was the best place to be because you could just be in your own world where the road went backwards. However, if you were sent to the way way back, it was a condemnation. You weren’t fit to travel with the rest of the family.

The movie begins with its hero, Duncan, sitting in the way way back on his way to a broken family vacation—he and his mother, and her boyfriend and his daughter. Duncan is a little old to be in the way way back, but it becomes clear quickly that this is where his mother’s boyfriend sees him.

Despite the station wagon, this story takes place in the present. The station wagon is just one of the boyfriend’s eccentricities that are concentrated in keeping everything about him and no one else. Duncan is lost. He’s at that most awkward of ages when no one has yet given him the chance to figure out who he is but everyone expects him to just know. He doesn’t seem to have any social skills. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition. He has absolutely no roles models, except for his mother who is just as lost since her husband left. I suppose the boyfriend does offer the stability of his own self-righteousness.

It’s no surprise that this is a coming of age story. It’s a comedy at times, but it’s pretty serious about its subject. The adults in Duncan’s life are awful. In fact all the adults are really depicted pretty much as big children. I’ve never hated Steve Carell as much as I did here. That’s a compliment to his acting though.

There is one adult who emerges in Duncan’s life, however, who finally provides him with a purpose. He is the owner/operator of a water park and is played by Sam Rockwell as another big child, but one who prefers to only see the positive aspects of life. His girlfriend takes care of the more adult necessities of running a water park. Rockwell steals the show with his sort of zen-like philosophy of never pretending to be anything other than what you want to be.

The movie is one of those great observational dramadies that gets so much right about the aspects of being a teenager. It’s not quite so fair to adults, who really are big children at heart but have much tougher jobs than they are given credit for here. However, there is much to recognize in life here and a good message provided by it’s unlikely role model. Its summer setting could also be a nice relief from the winter cold for some people as well.

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