The Way, Way Back Film Review: A Bumpy Emotional Nostalgic Trip

Scott successfully makes me jealous by having the chance to see a film I desperately want to watch, but the picture stubbornly refuses to be screened in my area.  Here is Scott offering up his thoughts on a very different kind of summer movie in his review of The Way, Way Back. 


Perhaps it was meant to be, standing outside of the Paramount Theatre in Kelowna on a still summer evening awaiting the fourth member of our party to head in and see The Way, Way Back.  In a day of large, spacious and sterile movie theatres with brightly lit foyers, I was transported back into my childhood every time the doors to the Paramount opened.  Inside I could see an almost claustrophobic entrance with dim lighting, which brought me back to simpler days of movie theatres that had one, two or three screens. What sent my senses directly into overdrive, though, was the smell of stale popcorn that flooded out of the door to smack me in the face, only to disappear the moment the entrance was once again closed.  I was completely teleported back to summer nights as a child, going to the theatre with my parents to see such classics as The Goonies.  Completely pulled from time and space, I was awkward young Scott.

When the movie opens, we are met with Duncan (Liam James) riding in a panel station wagon, having a conversation with his mother’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) with his mother riding shotgun and Trent’s daughter reclined and lost in her own world.  In the conversation, Trent gives what we can only presume is what he considers an encouraging speech to Duncan about the upcoming summer.  The height of the encouragement and uplifting comes after Trent asks Duncan how he would rate himself out of ten, and then tells Duncan that in actuality he is a three.  The interesting part of this introductory scene is that of the four characters, all are riding in the car looking forward to what may come, whereas Duncan is riding in the trunk seat of the station wagon, looking back to where he came from.

When they reach their destination, which is a cozy little beach town on the Atlantic coast, we find that it is a summer trapped in time. All of the characters here seem to revert to the rhythms and patterns of summers' past, never being able to let go of those moments of their youth.  Duncan, a fourteen year old boy with a social awkwardness and lack of confidence that transcends just existing in his interactions with others, but penetrates into even his withdrawn posture and stance, has no place in which to fit.  The other teenagers seem to be living in the same cycle as the parents and just doing the summer motions as they have always done.

What we have in this movie is an object, surrounded by happily stationary objects, wanting to move, wanting to discover but not having the abilities to naturally do so.  We follow Duncan as his want to escape the pain of his unhappy life forces him to take some social risks, including awkward conversations with girls that I myself can align with all too well.  In his pilgrimage with no known destination, he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) who is a manager at local water park.  Owen is a charismatic, laid back individual who develops a relationship with our socially inept protagonist and hires him to work at the park, which is also completely stuck in the past.

What follows is one of the most heartwarming, yet at times emotionally torturous movies of the summer.  The performance by Liam James is unbelievable, and he captures the nuances of his character to perfection. The movie does have some very jilted transitions from moments of elevated emotion, to Duncan being rocked by reality and left remembering the harsh nature of his dysfunctional life at home. Sometimes such quick emotional transitions do not work, but in the real life of a socially lost individual the highs are intoxicatingly high and can be swept out from under your feet as quickly as someone can remind you of who you truly are.

The movie was written and directed by both Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, neither of whom had directed a movie before.  The talent they show in weaving a story of different characters with deep personalities, using imagery to narrate the mood would make people believe they have been around the block and had sat in the director’s chair many times before.  As well, the acting performances by Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell were dynamic and captured a real essence of the characters that they played.  They both played a father figure to Duncan, but one who went through the motions and the other who would do anything to see the man develop his confidence and self-awareness.

In the end, this movie left me with so many emotions that I was just completely unable to shake as the credits rolled. That truly is the sign of a good movie… it is one that haunts you, whether you want it to or not. As I saw a lot of myself in Duncan, I know that there are scenes and characters in the movie that other people can relate to.  Some scenes can be triggering for some people, as Rash and Faxon seem to know well the instances and situations that are able to cause tension among family.  As the movie ended, we once again had Duncan in the rear-facing seat of the panel station wagon with the rest of the family once again looking forward.  But this time, as the car reversed out from the driveway of the summer home, it was now Duncan who was the lone character looking forward, a victor over summer by choosing to push into the unknown and discover life.