During the summer, discovering independent movies where the characters a) act like real people and b) have a modicum of intelligence can be difficult, but there’s always a few that manage to thrive alongside the hotly awaited franchises and action movies. Maybe part of it is that by the end of summer, moviegoers are getting tired of watching explosions and are craving something a little more nourishing. But if you look, even at the multiplexes, you can always find at least a couple, such as “The Way Way Back” which came out a few summers ago, and managed to stick around into October where I lived.
Besides just being a good movie, “The Way Way Back,” also achieved something few movies do when I saw it, everyone in my theater had the identical reaction to the opening scene. This was, of course, the group cringe, accompanied by silence so complete you could hear a pin drop. Not since Ben Stiller’s “frank and beans,” scene in “There’s Something About Mary,” had I been so sure that not a single other person in the room was doing anything other than wincing their way through it. Like another coming-of-age summer movie, “Dirty Dancing,” “The Way Way Back opens with a family on a car trip, presumably happy to be heading out for a few weeks of vacation. But we skip the expected scenes where either all the characters interact, and/or there’s a solemn voice-over by the character who is about to come of age. Instead, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Liam James, who is sitting in the aforementioned “way way back seat,” and the boyfriend (Steve Carell) of Liam’s recently separated single mom (Toni Collette). But we only see the latter as a pair of grim eyes in the rearview mirror, and hear his voice, as he asks Liam to rate himself as a person on a scale from 1 to 10. This leads to a disagreement in ratings, and as the car pulls into the driveway of Steve’s family beach house, we’re more than primed to see him as the bad guy. (We also learn that he over-prizes his car, this means that he’s a jerk by Hollywood movie standards.)
Anyway, it only takes a minute for Steve’s sister (Alison Janney), who is also divorced and has two children, including AnnaSophia Robb, to swoop down on them and regale them with her life story, embarrassing and R-rated parts included. (There really are people like this, so it establishes her character, not just provides handy exposition.) Also staying nearby in a beach house are Steve’s friends (though later we’ll question that, too) a couple played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. At first, we continue with the group cringe, as Steve subjects Liam to a series of petty embarrassments, as well as Steve’s teen daughter (Zoe Levin) barely tolerating his presence, but eventually, Liam borrows a bike and heads off in search of less judgmental souls. He winds up at a run-down water park called “Water Wizz” (which is a real place and why it is misspelled both ways is never discussed). This is where Liam meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an older employee whose inability to take anything seriously irritates his girlfriend (Maya Rudolph) but whose humor is right up Liam’s alley (even if he doesn’t always get the joke at first). Liam takes a part-time job at Water Wizz, and slowly but believably begins to do some growing up.
Other drama comes in the form of the possibility that Steve is cheating on Toni, Liam’s attraction to AnnaSophia, and tension between Owen and Maya. It all comes to a head at a cookout attended by all but the water park characters, in which Liam confronts Steve. Like Jennifer Grey’s character in “Dirty Dancing,” part of the maturation process involves seeing one’s parents as flawed beings, but ones who do have reasons for their behavior. There are no hot dance or sex scenes in “The Way Way Back,” but both movies involve teens who aren’t glamorous by Hollywood standards, learning some harsh but valuable life lessons – and though it may not end the way the viewer wants, there is evidence that a happy ending is still on the way.