As January rolls around, my favorite annual activity begins: reflecting on the best movies of the year. There is no better holiday party game. You learn which friends to keep because you respect their opinions and which friends to get rid of because you’re horrified by their taste in film (this year I unfortunately lost quite a few friends who enjoyed Pacific Rim). My list of 2013 favorites is packed with some goodies –The Spectacular Now, Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf of Wall Street – but my very favorite has to be one that far too many people missed: The Way, Way Back.
The Way, Way Back documents 14-year-old Duncan’s (Liam James) summer, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a good one. Duncan’s recently divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette) drags him to her boyfriend Trent’s beach house for the summer. We learn in the very first scene that Trent (Steve Carell) really, really sucks. The words “jerk,” “turd,” and “worst ever” come to mind. As they drive to the beach, Trent asks Duncan where he would rank himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Duncan doesn’t want to answer, but eventually replies a “6.” Trent tells him he thinks he’s a “3.”
It only gets worse when they arrive at the beach. Pam and Trent spend all of their time with Trent’s beach friends Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kipp (Rob Corddry), drinking and smoking and ignoring their children. As one kid remarks, “It’s like spring break for grown-ups.” The most ridiculous beach friend – and best part of the movie – is Betty (Allison Janney), a divorced mom who lives next door to Trent. She spends the film sunning her “titties,” and continually making fun of her young son for his “confusing” lazy eye. Betty has many lines that you joyously won’t believe made it into the movie.
But Duncan’s summer eventually turns around. He happens upon Water Wizz Water Park on a long bike ride, and strikes up a sweet mentor-mentee friendship with the park’s lazy but hilarious manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) and the rest of the Water Wizz’s motley crew. He begins a secret life as a Water Wizz employee away from his hellish summer household, where things are falling even further apart.
The Way, Way Back is so charming, touching and hilarious because it feels so genuine. The writers – Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also directed it and appear in the film – spent a lot of adolescent summers at water parks, and do the experience a quaint, beautiful justice (my Water Wizz is Splash Down Dunes). You get the sense that one or more of them also came of age during a painful divorce.
The film elegantly grapples with a scary question (especially for a college senior about to enter the Real World): just how much fun are grown-ups allowed to have? We feel for Duncan that his mom Pam has selfishly brought him along on the vacation that she wants but he doesn’t, but we also want her to find new love – isn’t she allowed to be a little bit selfish? Maya Rudolph’s (who is perpetually underused) character pushes Sam Rockwell’s throughout the film to clean up his act and be a responsible adult. But at the same time he’s the shaggy, fun loving yet inspiring mentor we all wish we’d had – can’t he be allowed some wiggle room? (I think Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination, but admittedly have a raging crush. I know it’s important to state such a strong journalistic bias).
Amy Solomon is a senior and an Independent Concentrator in Journalism.