In a summer of big brash booming blockbusters, it’s always nice when you can spend a bit of time relaxing in the company of American independent cinema. Over the past few decades the American indy movie has developed its own set of cliches which can be traced back to the influence of directors like Wes Anderson and the Coens.
The Way Way Back is no exception. Like Little Miss Sunshine it has a ‘kooky’ ensemble cast of established character actors. Like Adventureland it features an awkward introvert as its lead. Like Garden State the romantic interest is almost too perfect to be believable.
The film sees Duncan (Liam James) go on his first family vacation with his Mom (Toni Collette), her boyfriend of around a year, Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).
With no friends his own age, he is left spending a few days having to hang out while the adults around him get drunk and high. However, he soon finds respite in the Water Wizz Park, run by the laid-back and generally awesome Owen (Sam Rockwell).
In some ways The Way Way Back is what’s both best and worst about a certain type of American Indy movie. Like the best of these films, it’s funny, charming, deals with emotional issues well, and is full of great performances. Like the worst of these films, the number of characters means some are very one-dimensional and the plot is pretty predictable.
For me, one of the big issues was the lack of thought put into Duncan’s romantic interest, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Her mother (Allison Janney) is a borderline alcoholic and her father has recently come out, but this seems to have next to no impact on her. She reads books, listens to the same music as Duncan and has little interest in the shallow teenage issues of Trent’s daughter, Steph. It is as though Duncan has somehow imagined her into existence as a way of dealing with all the bad things going on around him.
A good test for this type of character is to note that all their actions are reactions to the protagonist, rather than choices independently made.
It’s a real shame since Toni Collette gives a great performance as his mother who is torn between doing right by Trent, doing right by herself, and doing right by Duncan. As such, it seems more like a problem which is more systematic of this type of film. With so many characters, it is almost inevitable that some remain underwritten.
Despite this misstep the film did ultimately win me over. At its centre, the relationship between Duncan and Owen develops in what feels live a very real and heart-warming way, and exists in stark contrast to the relationship between Duncan and his Mom’s new boyfriend, Trent. As a result we get a film which seems interested in the issue of divorce, and the ‘role models’ that drift in and out of kids’ lives as a result.
The Way Way Back opens with a painful conversation between Trent and Duncan where Trent insists the young teenager marks himself out of ten. After doing so, Trent remarks he is “a 3”, but says he should spend this summer trying to improve that score. It sets the tone for the movie, since I think Trent genuinely thinks he is helping Duncan with his advice. However, Duncan is left shattered by the conversation; all too aware that his mother has chosen this smarmy man as her closest companion.
Owen, on the other hand, doesn’t offer much advice to Duncan, but merely gives him opportunities to show what he can do. The relationship works because it avoids feeling like some kind of after-school special, and yet still leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy inside. All the more so because of all the painfully bad stuff that is happening back at Duncan’s home.
The Way Way Back then, whilst not an especially original film, stills reminded me why I am a sucker for this type of American indy film. Like Away We Go, Juno or Sideways it deals with reality and emotional hurt (specifically in the context of the breakdown of familial relationships) and yet like these other films still reminds us of the things that can be great in life (in this case having someone who genuinely believes in you and has your best interests at heart). A simple formula perhaps, but one I will continue to fall for again and again.