How close does a film have to adhere to familiar tropes before being labeled formulaic? The Way, Way Back, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (writers of The Descendants), has a veritable asymptotic relationship with the cliches of coming-of-age films — it gets increasingly closer to incorporating the well-worn beats of those films, but is skewed enough that it’s not completely trite. There are a few too many scenes that feel like a box is being checked off (“fun-time montage,” CHECK; “inspirational speech,” CHECK). But fun dialogue, entertaining performances, and a very realistic undercurrent of awkward unhappiness inform those scenes, making it all much more palatable.
Liam James stars as Duncan, a 14 year old forced to accompany his divorced mother (Toni Collette) during summer vacation with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s daughter (Zoe Levin). James delivers a great performance, believably portraying an incredibly awkward teenager who is all shoulders and shrugs, whose social ineptitude barely masks a deep well of self-loathing and general resentment. The opening scene efficiently establishes both the relationship and the personalities of Trent and Duncan, as Trent informs Duncan that he is a “3” (out of 10). Duncan looks plaintively at his mom as she sleeps in the car, oblivious to her boyfriend’s ability to target and attack this incredibly vulnerable young man, and meekly asserts that he’ll try to “raise that score.”
The quartet spends the summer at Trent’s beach house, where they encounter the returning crowd that’s quick to dispense gossip and quicker to receive drinks. Once Duncan is properly ostracized from other kids, he is free to find refuge in the form of a water park run by Sam Rockwell’s Owen, essentially a reincarnation of Bill Murray’s Meatballs camp counselor with better hair. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, which allows Duncan to grow into himself a bit more.
Except… it’s not that cookie-cutter straightforward. While most coming-of-age movies have an inspirational relationship that strengthens the young protagonist, this movie more realistically shows that Duncan, despite all of Owen’s best Miyagi efforts, remains only comfortable within the confines of the water park. Outside of the park, he’s still at the mercy of being only 14, neglected by his mother and belittled by Trent. Duncan can only speak to the intriguing girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) when she visits him at the park; otherwise, he stammers and flails around trying to find something to say, before settling on the cul de sac of conversation, the weather.
The movie isn’t just about the awkward phase of a 14-year-old boy; it’s about many awkward phases that seem to creep in no matter how nice the setting (or even the weather): There’s the awkwardness of people in their late 40s trying to reclaim their youth through boozing and running off into the dunes at night; the awkwardness of Owen’s perennial clown barely managing the basic responsibilities of an adult relationship with his coworker (Maya Rudolph); that awkward divide between who we are and who we want to be — or who we are in one situation versus who we can be once removed from it. The film implies that no matter where we are in life, we are always desperately trying to be someone we’re not, a principle that helps elevate this movie from its formulaic tendencies.