The losers of high school dramas are cooler than me. Anthony Michael Hall and Jesse Eisenberg would be my high school’s presidents, not wallflowers. It happens so often: the seemingly hopeless male protagonist, that we are supposed to believe is a geek, looks and acts more like a male model, filling his role only through cliche dialog.
The Way, Way Back is an enjoyable film for many reasons: the comedic performances, the pleasant atmosphere, the hilarious script … but I respect it for possessing the tenacity to feature a truly banal lead actor with a believable transformation, one that leaves him where most on-screen “nerds” begin.
The Way, Way Back
Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Release Date: January 21, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)
Duncan isn’t the nerd you identify with. He’s the nerd you feel bad for. Displaying a crippling lack of confidence, he can barely summon the words out of his mouth; he walks around with a hunch; and he’ll send back a compliment until the end of time, if the other party lets him. Water park entrepreneur Owen (Sam Rockwell) is that rare person who doesn’t judge Duncan or pay mind to his sad sack routine.
In both tone and plotting, The Way, Way Back is an amalgamation of Youth in Exile and Adventureland. Duncan, on vacation with his mom, her boyfriend, and his sister, is taken outside the safety of his home, where he spends the majority of his time. Trent (Steve Carell), the mom’s boyfriend, is a bossy, judgmental force positioned to make Duncan’s summer break more miserable than he had planned. Needing an escape from his mom’s self-centered vacationing, Duncan wanders the lazy beach side suburb, leading to brushing shoulders with Owen.
The tenderness of The Way, Way Back comes from the friendship shared between Duncan and Owen. Owen is a crass, wise cracking boss that doesn’t take his job (or his employees) seriously. Most of Owen’s jokes are funny, given Rockwell’s delivery and writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, (The Descendents), but a lot of Owen’s lines land flat with both his audience and the theater. I adore this quality to Rockwell’s character, because funny characters in films are only ever funny. Not so in real life. Owen is that guy who thinks he is funny — a natural born comedian — but is often an unfunny clown, wasting his and others’ time. Likewise, Duncan isn’t playing boring, he is boring. These noticeable flaws in character make the rote drama and familiar story of The Way, Way Back effective and refreshing.
I don’t mean to suggest The Way, Way Back isn’t funny. Allison Janney, playing the role of an off-the-rails heavy drinking neighbor, and Rockwell provide some of the biggest laughs that will likely grace a comedy in 2013. Also, Jim Rash takes a step out from behind the camera to play a character almost as outlandish as his role as the principal on NBC’s Community — he doesn’t gel well with the rest of the film’s cast, but the comedic moments make this forgivable. The only flat performance comes from Carell, who is miscast with no funny lines and a botched attempt at appearing abusive. It’s no deal-breaker, but I wonder why Carell took the part in the first place.
The Way, Way Back really is a teenage take on Adventureland with the comedy coming before the drama. But, Adventureland is one of my favorite films so how could that ever be a negative? Like that film, The Way, Way Back has a sweetness and nostalgia in its setting and tone. Duncan is still a lifetime away from being the cool kid, at film’s end, but such a grand transformation wouldn’t suit a comedy so dedicated to getting the little things right.