The opening moments of The Way Way Back highlight an age-old rating system that every teenager has entertained in their mind – or they have at least discussed it in a playground: What would you rate yourself? Duncan (Liam James) struggles to answer, venturing a ‘6’ while his Mum’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) ignores his answer and claims that Duncan is a ‘3’. This disconnect and conflict in values between Trent and Duncan provides the backbone to the film as Duncan desperately escapes the clutches of the family and finds solace in the Water Wizz – a water park owned (or at least managed) by Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen and Duncan strike up an unlikely friendship and Owen becomes a temporary father-figure to coach Duncan in life – ensuring that Duncan acts “like a man” by ogling the bottoms of girls and understands sarcasm.
Likeable, twee and inevitably a “favourite film” for those who relate to the nervous, awkward teenager, The Way Way Back plays it safe and seems to show a formula that clearly “works” for the indie film including a large cast that recalls Little Miss Sunshine (Toni Collette and Steve Carrell appear in both) and the use of the summer as a time for change for shy, reserved boys – recalling Adventureland and Youth in Revolt.
The personal, yet “we’ve-heard-it-all-before” sentiment, that resolves the many situations may be illuminating and important to Duncan but they fail to address the complexities of others. Trent’s image-obsessed daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is merely a character to be mocked as she appears to be an extension of Trent himself – in one moment, Steph shouts at Duncan about where he has been and how he has “ruined everything”; it would be nice to see Steph’s own worries and how she too – like Duncan – is often left to her own devices to find entertainment. This could be asked of many characters, but even Trent is clearly “bad” while Duncan’s Mum, Pam, is “good” – is it possible that Trent may be trying to change through Pam’s influence? Could Pam be a problem herself? In the Water Wizz world, there is no grey area – it’s all black and white. Or blue and yellow. But maybe that’s too complicated, eh, buddy?
The mantra of The Way Way Back is “Don’t Settle”. Sam Rockwell’s lovable, but useless manager, ‘Owen’ offers this advice to coming-of-age Duncan (Liam James) as our teenager vents his frustrations about his Mum’s boyfriend and his worries about the future. Ironically, The Way Way Back seems to have “settled” for direct storytelling and well-known themes. It becomes flat and specific in the ideas it wants to address – without trying to keep a little ambiguity about the challenges adults face. But the comedy is well-written while Jim Rash (a co-writer) and Maya Rudolph as the Water Wizz “family”, alongside a perfectly-pitched performance from Sam Rockwell, do make you consider why we work so hard at all – maybe we should just pack in our jobs and all work at theme parks? The Way Way Back manages to tell a tale of teenage troubles, and how they can be overcome, but when teenagers reflect on their own life, I doubt they will see a truth and instead see the complexities – something The Way Way Back misses out.