‘Way, Way Back’ is a fair small-scale character movie

By Gary Clift

“The Way, Way Back” is one of those “little” movies, character-heavy pictures, small-budget ones, that known actors sometimes get into in between bigger projects. Originally released in late July, it did good business and so has been brought to our twelve-plex.

The movie stars Steve Carrell—it gives him a chance to be a villain for once—as well as proven talents Toni Collette, Allison Janey, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet, and the great Sam Rockwell. Whether the star of the show, young Liam James, is up to leading this cast is one of the questions moviegoers may have after a viewing.

The film itself recalls “Adventureland,” a 2009 “little” movie about a high school kid (Jesse Eisenberg) whose parents have suffered substantial financial reversals. He takes a summer job at an outmoded amusement park where he falls for an attractive co-worker (Kristen Stewart) and learns something about life from an over-aged park attendant (Ryan Reynolds).

“The Way, Way Back” gives us Duncan, a.k.a. Pop ‘n’ Lock, whose parents have divorced. He goes with his mother (Collette), her current beau Trent (Carrell), and his daughter to Trent’s beach house. Derided by the small-time bully Trent, Duncan finds his way to a decaying water park where he secretly takes a job.

Over-aged park attendant Owen (Rockwell) is a character whose energy helps to keep the park amusing for guests and employees. He sees himself in Duncan and advises the kid not to take things too hard and not to feel he must live out any cliches.

Duncan begins to fall for little Susanna (Robb), a neighbor whose parents have also divorced. She is less mindless than most of the other kids who hang out on the beach, and she sympathizes with him, eventually following him (on a bike) to the water park and getting a day-long guided tour.

Our Duncan needs some sympathy that he isn’t getting from his mother. Trent makes frequent assertions that he knows he must do better, but he is hard on the boy—telling him that on a scale of one to ten he would rate the kid a three.

Trent is carrying on a flirtation with Joan (Peet), another neighbor’s wife. When he is caught lying about this at a party, Duncan very loudly demands some sort of action from his mother. She seems too ashamed to act. The angry Trent makes a cold-hearted claim about Duncan. And Susanna unintentionally embarrasses the kid.

All of this happens very fast and reminded me that the evening before I’d see a screening of the new, local indy “Manhattan,” in which the lead character loses his job, is robbed, and comes home to discover his wife in bed with another man, all in a period of a few minutes. Are these triple-loss crises common in film?

In “The Way, Way Back” (the title refers to the farthest back seating in station wagons of the 1960s and 70s) the triple-loss crisis sets-up the story’s climax, during which whatever it is that Duncan learned from Owen has to give the boy and his mother some reason for hope. As is true of a lot of what happens in the film, the big ending seems mechanical, though not false.

One of the most interesting features of the film is its depiction of timelessness in the resort area. I spent a reel or two trying to figure out what decade the movie was set in. Some of the tip offs include pop music inclusions, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed hearing Inxs’s “New Sensation,” one of those songs.

“The Way, Way Back” is one of those small-scale character movies, and not a bad example of the breed. But it also isn’t anything more than that.

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