Just A Taste When We Need A Whole Bite: A Review of The Way, Way Back
Quarters for Pac-Man, water slides, station wagons, clambakes, Candy Land board games and bikes in coastal beach towns—what more could be offered in order to illicit the warmth and nostalgia of childhood summers? Filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring to life summers of childhood past in their film The Way, Way Back. We feel the angst, we feel the summer ease, we feel the water slide burn on the back of our legs and the salty humidity in the air, but what do we feel for the characters?
The film follows 14-year old Duncan (Liam James), a socially-awkward teeny-bopper plagued with poor self-esteem who is forced to spend the summer with his mother, Pam (Toni Collete), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), at his summer beach house. Carell’s Trent is a ruthless prick who takes a particular liking to beating Duncan down a peg in the name of brutal honesty—bullying him in ways he deems necessary for Duncan’s social well-being. In the opening scene he tells a passive Duncan, keen on keeping to himself in the rear-facing backseat of Trent’s Station Wagon, that on a scale of 1-10, Duncan is a 3. With this admission their dynamic is set and the film’s central hurdle is established: make Duncan see he’s worth something. Duncan finds solace in a summer job at a tacky water park where one of its lifelong employee’s Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes it upon himself to break Duncan out of his shell. As would be the case, by the end of the summer Duncan emerges sans-shell, new and improved, with a sense of self-worth and a summer chock-full of memories.
The film is about self-discovery. Specifically, self-discovery through the people we encounter—our relationships. This is especially the case when you’re fourteen, when your parents are divorced, and when a new father figure comes into your life, and it’s only further complicated when you’re in the middle of adolescence with all the sweaty palm, angst-bucket indecision that looms over every zit and growing pain. Duncan doesn’t have it easy, but he also doesn’t have it much different than most.
In a story about relationships—Duncan’s relationship with his mother, Duncan’s relationship with his father we never see, Duncan’s relationship with Trent, with Owen, with the girl next door, not to forget Pam’s relationship with Trent and Owen’s relationship with his will-they-won’t-they love interest Caitlin (Maya Rudolph)—it’s critical that those relationships are well explored. Unfortunately, Faxon and Rash only scratch the surface on these relationships.
I think it’s intentional on the filmmakers’ part to not delve too deep into the characters’ dynamics with each other. It’s ambitious. It’s a subtlety that I really want to be able to get behind and root for, but I can’t. As hard as they try to straddle the line between showing us just enough and holding back more than a little, they end up showing too little. I commend the filmmakers for attempting to draw blood with just a scratch to the surface, but I’m not sure they ever break the skin. We get tiny bits, the first layer, of so many relationships which is nice and refreshing and keeps the film from teetering into a preachy after school special, but at what cost?
In their attempt to be subtle, to not drill the dynamics into us, to not plague us with backstory, angst and indecision, we lose the characters. We know their roles. We know a couple adjectives to describe them: Duncan—timid; Pam—submissive; Trent—asshole. We know a thing or two about their relationships with each other—Duncan hates Trent; Trent hates Duncan; Pam doesn’t really love Trent but desperately wants the relationship to work; Duncan sees through the farce and wants his mom to own up. But by giving us just a taste—just a taste of the cheating scandal between Trent and Pam, just a taste of Duncan’s experience with his divorced parents, just a taste of Owen’s slacker ways ruining all previous chances with his co-worker—we don’t have enough to say yea or nay on the whole meal. We need bigger bites. Don’t bloat us, Faxon and Rash! Don’t make us sit pained on the couch after feasting, but give us more than a sample if you expect us to really feel for the lives you’ve created.
We get tiny vignettes, a brief allusion to the bigger picture, but not enough to make us feel like we know where the characters are going or are rooting for them to succeed. Maybe Caitlin and Owen will finally get together for real. It’s safe to assume Pam will leave Trent after no-longer-passive Duncan talks some sense into her. But Pam’s final move from the passenger seat beside Trent to the rear-facing backseat with her son as the car sails down the freeway, and Duncan’s bold sprint through parking lots as he escapes the dreaded Station Wagon, would hit home so much harder if the dynamics between the characters had been layered a bit more. Just a few more details, a little extra exploration and we’d truly understand when Duncan sprints from that car what he’s thinking, what he’s fighting for and what he’s losing by sitting one second longer in that backseat.
We do get it. We do know Duncan. But in the filmmakers’ attempt to be subtle we lose the opportunity to know Duncan that much more.
And don’t we want to know our main character as best as we possibly can? Don’t we want to at least think we do?
Posted on July 11, 2013, in Film Reviews :: Young and Old, The B's and tagged angst, Caitlin, Duncan, indie, Jim Rash, Liam James, Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon, nostalgia, Owen, Pam, relationship, Review, Sam Rockwell, station wagon, Steve Carell, summer, The Way Way Back, Toni Collete, Trent. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.