My brothers and I used to sit in the way, way back of our station wagon, the electric window the size of the windshield, facing backwards, as our mom drove. We would beg her to put the window down since she had the child lock on the window. She would only lower it a small amount, afraid we would fall out. No matter, it put us out of her reach, away from her ear shot. We used to fight over who got the way, way back. If one of us had a friend coming along for the ride, is was understood that the way, way back was reserved for you and your friend. If more than one of us had a friend, the eldest had seniority. It was just understood. No seat belts available in the way, way back … but It always felt safer back there somehow.
My brothers mooned people in passing cars from the way, way, back. Mom loudly protested, trying in vain to hold back her laughter. It was fun in the way, way back. It felt free. Backwards, but free … like an amusement park ride. Like a water park ride.
My after my mother and father divorced, we lived with father in Las Vegas while our mother moved to Santa Barbara with that big station wagon.
I was 13 and my twin brothers were 10, when mom decided to take us from Vegas back to California without my father’s permission or knowledge. I squeezed my skinny self through the crack she left in that windshield of a window, while she was getting beer and cigarettes in the convenience store, in Baker California. My brothers were crying, begging me not to get out of the car. I called my father on his toll-free line from the pay phone. (Cell phones did not exist in 1976.) I made it back through the window in just enough time to avoid getting caught by my mom and got my brothers to calm down before she opened the door. I held my breath until she turned the ignition and the radio came on.
The next thing I know, as we are heading down the road, two cop cars from two different directions stopped us from traveling any further. My mom spent the night in the local jail, my brothers and I were driven back to Vegas in a big black limousine. I did not see much of my mother for a while. I was afraid of her. I was also forevermore afraid of riding in the way, way, back.
Speaking of fear, the mother in this film Pam, played with lovely nuance by the always delightful Toni Collette, is in a time of transition after a divorce. Her 14 year-old son Duncan (Liam James) is in his teenage angst transition and he wants to be anywhere other than with her mother’s boyfriend Trent, of almost a year (Steve Carell). Trent is a dick, and shows his dick-ness in the first few minutes of the film while riding in the car with Duncan (in the way, way back), as his mother and sister sleep. Trent is rude and insensitive and has no business in Duncan’s life. Trent is just a dick. Trent loves his “vintage” station wagon. Duncan cannot get far enough away from him and has to spend the summer at his beach house. These summers are for the adults to play and the kids come second to the adult fun. Duncan notices things around him that his mother, in all her fear, chooses to ignore.
It is established that Duncan is an outcast and a loner and you cannot help but feel sorry for the kid. He is not happy with his mother’s choice of men and he does not keep his dislike a secret. Unlike Trent, Duncan does not behave outright rudely to anyone, he is just a teenager with keen insight not seen or respected by the adults in his life.
After a meal, Trent tells Duncan to take his plate with him when he gets up to leave, “We clean up after ourselves in this house.” Duncan takes his plate and leaves the room. We feel for Duncan because Trent really is a dick and is trying to impose his will on the poor kid, without even really looking at him. Trent is one of those adults who doesn’t notice anyone other than himself. There is nothing likeable about Trent. It is difficult to pull off a completely unlikable character like Trent, but since we all love Steve Carell, this is a brilliant piece of casting. Have I mentioned that Trent is a dick?
Finally, Owen (Sam Rockwell) is brought in to splash some water in Duncan’s face. He is an overgrown kid himself with a heart of gold and takes Duncan into his world of adult perpetual childhood. Owen manages the local water park (Water Wizz – I guess cause they know all the kids are peeing in the water, might as well just call it like it is).
Owen gives Duncan a glimpse into a life free from the “sensible” patterns of most adults. Owen likes to live free of rules with a “go your own way” outlook. He is the polar opposite of Trent. Unlike Trent, Owen can see Duncan is a good kid and wants to help him by giving him the freedom to help himself.
Owen teaches Duncan that he has much to offer and shows him a new way to live. Fear guides most decisions in people’s lives. Owen shows Duncan that in the game of life, everyone is in the game of their life, not in the same game at all. He shows Duncan how to cut his own path. He shows him that he is a good person who can follow his own rhythm, in his own time, in his own way.
We all need someone like Owen in our lives as teenagers. It is a confusing and wild hormonal ride through our own individual water slides.
The premise of The Way Way Back is timeless. Can we forge our own path while maintaining connections with others? Can we be the first person to pass our mentor in the tunnel of knowledge and still keep that mentor in our lives? Can we make our way through life’s transitions without letting fear be our guide? Can we break old patterns of fear running our lives and still keep our families with us? Can we trust our instincts even though we are terrified we may miss our last chance at security? Can we stop and listen to our teenagers, even though they seem to be out of their minds? Can we put a dent in the beloved facade of our elders and get them to really see us?
In the Way Way Back … we can. What Duncan learns from Owen is that he has the power to be his own person. What Duncan learns from Owen is that there are people who will protect him from dicks like Trent. In return, Duncan passes on to his mom that her pattern of fear guiding her decisions, is not her only choice. She too, can join him in the way, way back … for myself I felt safe, once again, in the way, way back.
The film has something valuable and endearing for the young and the old. Allison Janney provides us with much-needed comic relief and Maya Rudolph is wonderful if not underused. The girl next door is perfect as played by AnnaSophia Robb. Liam James is absolutely perfect as Duncan, directed in such a natural way he seems a part of each and every one of us. He is one hell of a fine actor. The entire cast is good. Faxon and Rash have small supporting roles and knock them out of the park – the water park. The screenplay and direction are excellent.
“Yes, we are inviting ourselves, accept it and move on!” – Allison Janney as Betty. The best line of the film and the overall theme of the film.
The Way Way Back is the feel-good film of 2013. It is worth your time and money.
Two problems – 1) The ‘loser, nerd, loner’ section in the beginning went on for one too many beats and chance meetings with Owen. 2) They should have found a way to shoot the water-slide scene inside of the tube. Those two changes would have made it a 5 star film.
4 out of 5 stars.
– Laura Tompkins