When most people hear “summer movie,” they think superhero showdowns, ‘splosions from space, or Megan Fox trying to fix a carburetor with her tits. The Way Way Back doesn’t have any tits, fire, or aliens, but it feels like what a “summer movie” would be to someone who’d never been exposed to studio marketing, a movie that captures those little emotions that we most closely associate with summer. Sweet, earnest, ephemeral, nostalgic, and yeah, probably a little saccharine and a tad cheesy, but that’s the way of day at the beach or a family barbecue: they’re more about taking pleasure in what you’ve got than trying to find something new. The Way Way Back is just new enough, an adolescent coming-of-age story that’s familiar and refreshing in equal measure, just sort of a cool lemonade pitcher of a movie.
Written and directed by Ben and Kate’s Nat Faxon and Community‘s Jim Rash, two guys who seem to specialize in “nice” comedy that doesn’t suck (who previously co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne), and are also both kinda weird lookin, The Way Way Back centers around Dylan, a 15-year-old kid who’s at that weird age where you’re too old to want to hang out with your family, but too young to do anything on your own, so you’re just sort of stuck with each other. Dylan’s been dragged along to a beach house by his mom, played by Toni Collette, who’s already an old hand at the put-upon-but-well-meaning-mother-of-a-dorky-kid role. The house belongs to her boyfriend, played by Steve Carell, who plays dickhead so truthfully in this that he seems entirely believable and scarily familiar as a character that could easily have become cartoonish.
So anyway, slouchy, awkward Dylan is facing a whole summer stuck with his weird mom and her dick boyfriend and their crew of boozy, no-boundaries friends – played by the can-never-be-in-enough Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and Allison Janney – and their assorted children. They’ve pretty much nailed adolescent summer with that scenario, being thrown together with a weird interlocking assortment of individuals ranging in age and personality, because you’re all “kids,” who are all some funhouse reflection of their parents’ genes and values, at a time when you most want to not be thought of as a kid. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly standard premise.
Where the movie really shines is when Dylan finds himself ditching his family for a secret life working at a water park, where he becomes the protege of rakish, ne’er-do-well charmer Sam Rockwell, a regular Johnny Goodtimes who seems to have dedicated his life to good vibes and not givin’ a fuck. As I believe a commenter previously mentioned, it’s the Sam Rockwelliest role of Sam Rockwell’s career. You basically get to live vicariously through a kid who becomes Sam Rockwell’s best pal, and I promise, that’s all you’ve ever wanted, even if you don’t know it yet. He’s like they stuck Bill Murray, Paul Rudd, and some facial scruff into a centrifuge and synthesized pure charm. My God, I just want to wrap him in twine and tie him to the hood of my car and just drive and dive.
Faxon & Rash said their inspiration for Rockwell’s character was Bill Murray in Meatballs, but in Rockwell, at the risk of blasphemy, dare I say they’ve found something even better. Part of Bill Murray’s charm, and the reason that he can make a million shitty movies and you still love him, is that he has this aloofness about him, where he can exist within and without his source material at the same time, where he’s simultaneously believable in a role but still 100 percent Bill Murray. If you’ve ever watched The Pick-Up Artist or listened to any of those weird, pseudo-hypnotist hook-up gurus, some of their tips always involve orienting yourself in such a way during conversation that it feels like you might leave at any second, which I guess creates a sub-conscious desire in people to try to get you to stay. I think part the reason we love Bill Murray so much is related to that same psychological phenomenon, where we want to hold onto him because it feels like he might go off-book or just wander off into the woods to build a treehouse at any second.
Rockwell has a similar charm, but he’s also so goddamn present. Whereas Bill Murray can feel like he’s barely committing and there’s a mystery to what he’s thinking, Rockwell feels like he’s there with you a thousand percent, such that he can be silly and riff and make up weird stories (a big part of his character in this movie), but it doesn’t feel like he’s deflecting you, he’s drawing you closer. It’s not that he’s existing outside the story, but rather that he and the character are vibrating at precisely the same frequency, where watching it feels like hearing a major chord.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things I would change about this movie, lots of them. I don’t ever want to see another black-people-teach-white-guy-to-dance scene, even if The Way Way Back‘s version of it isn’t entirely unwatchable. They put a little too much emphasis on Dylan’s parent/marriage/divorce drama, and there are moments, particularly in a blowout scene at a party between Dylan and Steve Carell’s character, that probably cross the line into melodrama. The love interest is adorable and articulate and understanding in a way that seems idealized and not quite believable for a teen girl. I think Faxon & Rash overestimate the transparency of a 15-year-old boy’s need for his mother’s affection, and it feels like they thought the arc of Dylan’s relationship with his mother was the center of the story, when it’s really not.
It’s not a hip movie. There’s no hook or high-concept, and it’s not an all-out comedy, and as such, it feels like the kind of movie that I’ll scream and scream at everyone to see, but most people won’t, because most people are just dirty sweatsocks full of greasy dildos that talk. But it’ll be your loss, dildos, because the total harmony between character and actor like Sam Rockwell in The Way Way Back is as rare and impossible to fake as a comet.
Even objectively, The Way Way Back is strikingly similar in plot and themes to Adventureland, which was set at an amusement park instead of a water park. But The Way Way Back trades Ryan Reynolds for Sam Rockwell as charming townie, and Kristen Stewart for AnnaSophia Robb as love interest, which are big upgrades, to say nothing of Corddry, Collete, and Carell, or Liam James as Dylan, who nicely rides the line between familiarly awkward and repellently awkward.
It’s a little maudlin and it’s not anything new, but it’s a real movie, about people and place and feelings, where you get to experience a full range of emotions. It feels like someone confessing something in addition to just trying to entertain you, and that’s exactly what summer movies need more of.