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Time Travelers

A sharp, 1980s-style comedy set in 2013.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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The Way Way Back, a little movie about a 14-year-old boy who goes on an extended summer vacation with his divorced mother and her belittling boyfriend, comes close to being a classic. Close. Which poses a dilemma for a critic: I don’t know whether to concentrate on the marvelous qualities it possesses or on the weaknesses that prevent it from being the masterpiece it might have been. 

Liam James

Liam James

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The problem—a common one when it comes to reviewing—is that the criticisms are usually more interesting than the praise. That is especially true in the case of The Way Way Back, whose writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were forced to make compromises for financial reasons to get their movie made at all. Those compromises result in confusion and narrative problems. Given that I really do think you ought to see The Way Way Back at all costs, I don’t want you to be put off by my disappointment that it isn’t better.

As The Way Way Back begins, the brooding Duncan (Liam James) is seated in the third row of an old woodie station wagon, in the seat that faces the rear window (thus the film’s title). His mother (Toni Collette) is asleep in the front row, and her boyfriend’s teenage daughter is sleeping in the second row. The boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), calls to Duncan: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself?” Duncan doesn’t want to answer, but the deceptively mild and smiling Trent insists, and Duncan says he’d give himself a 6. Trent disagrees. He says Duncan is a 3, that the boy is too silent and morose, but that he can get his number higher if he ups his game this summer at Trent’s beach house.

This funny, brilliant, painful scene demonstrates Faxon and Rash’s sure-handed talent for writing tough and unsentimental characters in quick, sharp strokes—and their offhand directorial skill in making sure Steve Carell plays Trent as though he believes he is doing a kindness to the boy while actually scarring him emotionally.

Parents behaving badly without knowing it is an ongoing theme in The Way Way Back. Trent’s beach house is in a close-knit community whose residents have been returning for years. It’s “spring break for adults,” as one disaffected teenager puts it, and indeed, the adults are very busy entertaining themselves and are annoyed by the imperfections of the young. Allison Janney, in a remarkable turn as Trent’s affectionate and drunken next-door neighbor, insists that her 10-year-old son with amblyopia must wear an eye patch so he won’t make it hard for people to know how to look at his face.

Duncan’s mother Pam is so desperately eager to have things work out with Trent that she turns a blind eye to her boyfriend’s quiet efforts to put her son in his place. Fortunately for Duncan, he finds a refuge in a nearby low-rent water park. He is taken under the wing of the park’s jokey manager, a shambling guy named Owen—played by the best American actor whose name you don’t know, Sam Rockwell.

The film’s portrait of the “adult spring break” evokes the fiction of John Cheever and Ann Beattie. The portrait of the water park has a much different, more pop influence: Meatballs, the throwaway 1979 Canadian comedy that is one of the most beloved movies of the past 30 years. That film, about the campers and counselors at a shabby summer camp, managed to mix hijinks comedy with a soulful story about a shy and lost kid whose summer—and maybe whose teenage years altogether—are saved by the unexpected friendship he comes to share with the camp’s wisecracking head counselor. The Way Way Back’s Owen is a direct throwback to Bill Murray’s Tripper, and his emotional generosity and good-natured kindness deliver Duncan from Trent’s cruelties and his mother’s blindness to them.

Faxon and Rash, who shared an Oscar with Alexander Payne for the screenplay for The Descendants, are both network sitcom actors and play supporting roles here as employees at the water park. This was clearly a passion project for them; indeed, the relationship between Duncan and Trent was taken from Rash’s own life. And here’s where the problems with the movie arise.

Faxon and Rash acknowledge that their original screenplay was set in the 1980s, and every bit of detail here reflects that, from Trent’s car to the décor of the house and water park to the music of the soundtrack. The same is true of the characters. Trent is clearly a post-1970s dude. Pam is a classic 40-something of the era, having been dumped by a husband who’s been through a midlife crisis and relocated to California with a chippie. There are intimations of wife-swapping, redolent of a much earlier era.

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