It’s true that there are no small roles; especially in quirky dramedy types of films, quite often the success or failure of the story comes down to the characters filling out the scenes. The unchallenging-but-heartwarming “The Way, Way Back” exemplifies this. As the labor of love of two actors who are writers, you need only look to their memorable supporting turns to see how important they are.
Known largely for television comedies, Nat Faxon (“Ben and Kate”) and Jim Rash (“Community”) also co-wrote the screenplay for “The Descendants.” They won an Oscar for this effort, and you probably recall Rash popping his leg out to the side in imitation of Angelina Jolie when they accepted their award. The semi-autobiographical “The Way, Way Back” is their directorial debut, and they know what they’re doing in front of and behind the camera. The filmmakers have described their story as an homage to John Hughes films, and also to “Meatballs.”
In the spirit of John Hughes, the star of this film is an awkward young teenage boy, who starts out almost immobilized with mute contempt for Trent, his mother’s bully of a boyfriend, played by no more Mr. Nice-guy Steve Carrell. While Duncan, the boy, sits in the titular “Way, Way Back” of a station wagon, being ferried on an unwelcome summer vacation with his mom (Toni Collette), her boyfriend, and his daughter, Trent quizzes Duncan on how he would rate himself on a scale of one to 10. Unwilling to answer this preposterous question, Trent eventually delivers his own assessment of the young man. It is a three. Ouch.
The movie that I was most reminded of was “Little Miss Sunshine,” probably because two of that film’s stars are also in this one, but also because Carrell’s character bullies kids in the name of character development like Greg Kinnear did in “LMS.” It’s weird to see Carrell be as aggressive as he is here, and one of the film’s most interesting stages that it sets is the uncomfortable view of the teenage kid watching his mom as a woman trying to please the man she is dating versus someone she is already married to. It’s not fun to see your mom putting herself out there.
She tries to get in the holiday spirit, staying out late with Trent’s friends and smoking pot. Collette perfectly expresses the woman’s desperation to compromise; we get details like the fact that she and her son live in a one-bedroom apartment. We know that her ex-husband, Duncan’s father, has relocated across the country with a much younger woman. As a female viewer, I was drawn in by how much Collette could tell us in every scene; we saw her compromise as far as she could trying to make things work with Trent no matter how he treated poor Duncan.
With his temporary home life continuously humiliating, Duncan finds solace at the local water park where he takes a job and quickly falls under the spell of the affable Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, who is always a welcome addition to anything in my opinion. If this movie is “Meatballs,” Rockwell is Bill Murray, which is one of the best things you can be, provided you pull it off.
Curmudgeons might well bristle at some of the more overtly crowd pleasing moments. It could be argued that Duncan comes all too easily out of his shell, and I found a dancing scene to be particularly hard to believe. Sure, we can assume wisdom will pour from Rockwell’s mouth alongside rapid-fire jokes. We won’t be shocked when Duncan finds himself among a ragtag group of loveable loafers. A bit more drama might have strengthened the comedy all in all.
But you won’t find characters, even if they are too recognizable, brought to life any better than every single actor in this movie. I haven’t even gotten to Allison Janney as Trent’s abrasively fun-loving beach neighbor, or Amanda Peet as an unappealing and predatory wife to Trent’s best friend.
However, I am going to have to make this the last movie in which I can witness a character’s problem being solved through ironic dancing. “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Way, Way Back,” and the list goes on and on. Something else is going to have to happen in front of a crowd from now on. I can watch maybe a spelling bee, bird calls, balloon tying, magic tricks, but wacky dancing has to take a break in the bag of plot points.