Sam Rockwell is a really special actor. His kooky comedic performances add jolts of life to the comedies he’s in, i.e. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Seven Psychopaths. He has also shown a tremendous amount of dramatic range in his career with his roles in films such as Moon and Conviction. His performance in The Way, Way Back feels like the boiling point of these two sides; the making of a true movie star.
This movie is not specifically about Rockwell’s character, though. It follows Duncan (Liam James), a hyper-awkward teenager who is forced to go along with his divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Stephanie (Zoe Levin) for a summer vacation to Trent’s beach house. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’s social ineptitude on steroids’ might be an accurate way to describe Duncan’s personality. He’s quiet and shy to the point of being uncomfortable to watch at times. He’s easy to root for, though, because Trent and his daughter are the two of the most shallow and materialistic people you could imagine existing. The imminently likeable Carrell is totally the villain here, and he actually pulls it off. In the opening scene, Trent asks Duncan what he thinks he is on a scale of one-to-ten. Duncan says he’s a six. Trent fires back with ‘You’re a three.’ Those are the stakes. We immediately want to see Duncan either become more confident and stand up to Trent’s passive-aggression or find a way out of the situation altogether.
The one bright spot in Duncan’s summer is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the literal girl-next-door who’s way out of his league but who takes an interest in him as a friend. She’s Duncan’s only escape until he discovers Water Wizz, the waterpark far from the beach house that, according to Owen (Rockwell), has not been changed at all since the 1970s. The spirit of the place was definitely never altered. Owen, who works at the park, offers Duncan a job and from that point on, the coming-of-age story really kicks in. Owen takes Duncan under his wing and helps him understand that Trent’s smarminess means nothing about who Duncan is. Rockwell gives an outstanding performance in this film; one of the best of the year. He plays the type of person that you would have wanted to be your mentor in high school. He’s riotously funny at all the right (and sometimes wrong) times, but he’s also got a sensitive, understanding side to him.
When the conflict between Duncan and Trent comes to a head, The Way, Way Back really delivers, but it doesn’t hand you some unearned bravado, stand-up-and-cheer ending, either. It does, however, open up a nice window in which Toni Collette cements her place as the anchor of the film; we realize it’s really about Duncan and his mom learning to love and appreciate each other again.
Kudos to screenwriting/directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, because in a year where so many good coming-of-age films fail to cross over into ‘great’ territory, The Way, Way Back does cross that mark because it strikes a perfect balance between drama and comedy, and it also explores its main characters from all angles and gives a fair assessment. It feels like no important stone on this beach has been left unturned.