Let’s get right to it: The Way, Way Back is my favorite movie of 2013 so far. Writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have created a movie that’s completely antithetical to the big-budget, computer-generated summer blockbuster, and it manages to have a million times more soul and heart than most films out there currently. It’s not a lighthearted film, nor is it overly serious; it achieves a rare balance of the two, while combining the awkwardness and sensitivity that comes along with being an outcast who’s probably just hit puberty.
That outcast is Duncan, played gamely by Liam James; few teen performances have as much depth as he gives Duncan, ranging from shy introvert to someone breaking out of his shell and making his mark on his own. When we first meet Duncan, he’s packed in the back of a 1970s Buick Estate station wagon driven by his mother’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). We get a taste of who Trent really is as he uses this time (while Duncan’s mom is sleeping) to browbeat Duncan, basically calling him a loser and telling him that he’s got the whole summer to improve from being a 3 (on a scale of 1 to 10).
We’ve got nowhere to go but up from here, as this exchange sets up a baseline for what to expect. Duncan’s that kid in school who hung back and observed things rather than doing them – he doesn’t quite know how to connect with others in his age range, and he doesn’t quite get jokes. Now, he’s doomed to spend a whole summer with his mother (Toni Collette), Trent, and Trent’s bitchy teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin); the latter two spend their time treating Duncan like a pariah, turning their faces around when Pam’s nearby. During their time at Trent’s summer home, we get a feeling that Duncan may possibly be more mature than Trent is; Trent spends his time drinking, partying, and involving Pam in hypocritical shenanigans that run contrary to any kind of “wisdom” Trent tries to impart upon Duncan.
Duncan’s misery gets alleviated by both Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Owen (Sam Rockwell), two polar opposites that wind up having a significant impact upon Duncan and his loneliness. Susanna’s the quiet girl next door who hangs out with Steph, but doesn’t quite fit in with her; she’s a little more thoughtful than Steph is shown to be, and she doesn’t seem to mind Duncan so much, even when he stumbles over his own attraction for her and spouts nonsensical information about the weather. However, it’s the loquacious Owen who doesn’t help Duncan out of his shell; instead, he yanks him straight out of it and makes him sprint as far away from the shell as possible. Owen, a staff member at a local waterpark, takes Duncan under his wing both personally and professionally, showing him the ropes of the waterpark and of life itself.
It’s the moments between Duncan and either Susanna or Owen that make the film shine and make you smile. James, Robb, and Rockwell all share a wonderful chemistry that makes their exchanges believable and wonderful, whether it’s a carefree discussion about REO Speedwagon songs or talking about the pains that Duncan is suffering from Trent and how he believes his mother’s getting the shaft (in a bad way). It’s hard not to get caught up in Duncan’s world, and you find yourself rooting for him, hoping everything will work itself out for the best. However, the best thing about The Way, Way Back is that there is nothing trite or cliché about what happens here; there are break-ups and make-ups, missed kisses and epic smoochies, and nothing really ends up the way you wish it would.
Since I’ve been given the privilege of writing about movies, there are a few movies every year that make me extremely happy to be a critic and that make me elated about the art of film. In 2010, it was Inception; 2011 gave us Super 8 and 50/50; and last year’s best (for me, at least) were The Raid: Redemption, The Cabin in the Woods, and Looper. These were the noteworthy movies that made me love sitting in a dark room for 2 hours while images flashed on a large screen in front of me. And even though 2013 has crossed its halfway mark, no movie I’ve seen this year has made me turn to someone and say, “Damn, I’m lucky I get to do this” until The Way, Way Back. When you see it, you’ll understand why.