The Way Way Back

Immediately after we’d watched The Way Way Back my friend and I had the inevitable ‘so what did you think’ conversation. My insightful analysis amounted to four words:

‘It was really nice.’

It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of anything else to say, it was just that I didn’t think he’d want to listen to me going on about the ‘finding a substitute parent sub genre’ for fifteen minutes. It turns out I do have a filter between my brain and my mouth after all. My wife will be pleased, this is a real step forward for me.

Anyway Ray, you can decide for yourself if that was something you’d have been prepared to get into on the journey home because I’m blogging now so all filters are off.

The ‘finding a substitute parent sub genre’ includes films where a young protagonist befriends an older person, normally of the same gender, because one or both of their own parental figures are inadequate. The other film I saw this week, What Maisie Knew, would kind of fit into this category. (More comparisons between that film and this one later.) The most obvious example of the ‘finding a substitute parent sub genre’ is Back to the Future but there are others. Pretty in Pink, Billy Elliot, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Matilda and Leon for instance. Possibly even X-Men and Star Wars (I think Luke’s Dad can be comfortably described as inadequate although he doesn’t know that initially). Even fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Where the Wild Things Are could be read this way if you wanted.

Then there are films like Let The Right One In and Peter Pan where the main character joins up with someone who is older but exists in the form of another child. In some respects The Way Way Back almost fits in with these.

What we have then is essentially a coming of age story. 14 year old Duncan and his Mum are spending the Summer with Mum’s bullish boyfriend and his daughter at the boyfriends beach house. On the way there the potential step father gives Duncan the worst pep talk ever asking him how he would rate himself out of ten. Having nagged a score of six out of him he tells him he is really only a three but hey, if he bucks up his ideas he can improve that score. The film tells the story of how he becomes the ten he always could be but I’ve just made it sound a lot more cliched that it actually is. There is a brusque step sister, a precociously over confident younger kid and a girl next door but everything plays out convincingly.

Duncan’s Summer improves when he stumbles across the local water park and its man-child manager. Nothing that happens here will really surprise you but there isn’t anything wrong with that and Duncan’s personal journey is satisfying to watch. If you’re thinking the film doesn’t sound a million miles away from Adventureland then you wouldn’t be wrong, only this time there is no Kirsten Stewart and plenty of Sam Rockwell.

This is the ad-libbing and having fun, Seven Psychopaths/Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Sam Rockwell. He has pretty much taken over from Jim Carrey as the new Robin Williams. Sam Rockwell is the guy you now go to if you need a serious actor who can also go nuts and dance around a bit if you need him to. The act is familiar but it hasn’t got tired yet and he is great here as the first adult to recognise the potential in our downtrodden young hero. He isn’t a role model but that isn’t necessarily what teenagers need, they just need to know that adults aren’t all superior idiots inclined to demand respect they haven’t earned.

Sam Rockwell is not the sole grown up to avoid negative characterisation though. All the staff at the water park are similarly laid back and fun loving, contributing to the place’s almost mystical sense of wonder. Duncan’s trips there are akin to the young lovers stepping into the fairy world in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is no Narnia or Oz because it is a place where there is mischief but no peril, a place where things will all work out for you in the end. I love this idea of a run down water park being a fantastical wonderland because this is only a slight exaggeration of the metaphor children would bestow on such a place anyway.

Outside of this world Duncan faces a harsh reality where adults are weak, selfish, deceitful and pathetic and his only allies are other children. Both of the adolescents he befriends also get their day (or night) in Duncan’s escapist paradise and each of them find it an equal release from the oppression of adults who are successful financially but failing emotionally. The people who work at Water Wizz by contrast may not have any professional ambition but they are happy. There is even a hint that they are unable to leave as if under the influence of lotus flowers just adding to the suggestion that there is something magical going on.

I’ve probably stretched the metaphor too far now but even without this interpretation the film is a delight. The performances are all good with Steve Carrell leading grotesques, playing against type as the step father. Toni Collette is the Mum, nineteen years on from her own coming of age drama and Amanda Peet and the superb Allison Janney are in the mix too for fans of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows. On the lighter side with Mr Rockwell we have Maya Rudolph and the film’s directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The three main kids are all good too with AnnaSophia Robb (refugee from another fantasy land), River Alexander and Liam James as Duncan all playing their parts with warmth.

Earlier this week I wrote about how What Maisie Knew seamlessly transposed a story from 1897 London to modern day New York. Interestingly this film was written to be set thirty years ago but hasn’t hidden its period origins as effectively. The change was apparently made for budgetary reasons and this still feels a lot like an 80s story with the adventure park, Oldsmobiles and REO Speedwagon.

There are other comparisons to be made between The Way Way Back and What Maisie knew and quite by chance they made a good double bill for this week’s viewing. Both feature neglected children losing faith in self centred parents, both have said children offered solace by the compassion of others, both show the full strength of a romantic relationship demonstrated in just one brief kiss and both have trips to the beach. Whereas What Maisie Knew is a carefully crafted piece of cinema though, The Way Way Back shows a more carefree craft. This is best evidenced by the odd title. Originally the name was to be simply The Way Back but someone else used that last year so rather than rethinking it they just doubled up one of the nouns. Job done! Brilliant! It works because apparently the expression refers to where someone shy might stand in a crowd rather than a return journey.

The Way Way Back also has a great soundtrack which, like the ones for 500 Days of Summer and Easy A, immediately found its way onto my iPod as soon as I’d seen the film.

So all in all I think you should go and see The Way Way Back.

Basically ‘it was really nice.’

Is this one for the kids?

The Way Way Back is a 12A and is a great film for teenagers. It deals with issues relevant to young people without the constant glib references to sex you get in movies like Pitch Perfect and Mean Girls. The ‘responsible’ adults do engage in a little bit of fornication (off screen) but they mess it up just like everything else.

There is some swearing but it isn’t excessive or aggressive, it is just used in an everyday manner like most teenagers will have heard already. I have to admit that there is something about the expression ‘you sang the s#!t out of that song’ that carries a poetic sentiment it is impossible to get across with any other words.

Bechdel Test Score = 3

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