The Way Way Back
Teen angst movies are often some of the most boring things I can think of, but this one rises above that. Duncan (Liam James) is the 14-year-old son of Toni Collette, a divorced mother. She has been seeing Steve Carell for about a year, and they and his teen daughter are going to his cottage on Cape Cod for a summer vacation. Steve has one of those giant ‘60s station wagons, perfectly restored, and Duncan is the one in the rear-facing seat (way, way back). He is depressed, shy, nerdy, not engaged at all with anyone in his life. He’s not obnoxious about it, he’s mostly silent. It’s Steve who is the obnoxious one. We come to dislike him from the very first scene. Their neighbor on the Cape is Allison Janney, one of those big, blowsy, usually drunken women who laugh loudly all the time and say anything that pops into their heads. She’s fairly awful most of the time, particularly when she shouts at her youngest son who has the type of strabismus known as “wall-eye.” She humiliates him regularly, to the point that he spends most of the Fourth of July party sitting under a table.
It’s all pretty bleak for Duncan, until an employee (Sam Rockwell, in a pretty funny part) at a nearby water park called Water Wizz befriends him, then hires him to help out. For the first time in his life, he has friends, he fits in somewhere. It’s so good he doesn’t even tell his mother and Steve that he’s doing it.
Many plot complications arise, including Allison’s daughter seeming to be interested in Duncan. Steve is proved to be even more of a scumbag than he appears to be, but Toni sticks with him, mostly because she doesn’t know what else to do. And things don’t work out all neat and finished at the end, though Duncan does have a triumph that feels very satisfying to me. It’s a small, sensitive movie, well-acted, and well-written.