Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell, with Rob Corrdry, Amanda Peet, Zoe Levin and Maya Rudolph.
A terse summer vacation ensues when 14-year old Duncan is suffered by his ineffectual divorcee mother, her assh*le boyfriend, his petulant teenage daughter, their drunken neighbor, and their cadre of wasteful friends on a trip to the beaches of Long Island. The only thing that could make the trip bearable would be—oh, I dunno—a cute girl next door and a reckless water park employee. Trust me, it works every time.
At their most basal, summer family vacations mostly suck. Sure, you get away to the beach or the lake house for maybe a month, but that also includes having to deal with the members of your extended family that, a) you have seldom seen in years, who know less about you as an individual than you do, and; b) imply a need to act as if such interactions are as normal as breathing.
It gets all cramped. You all start assuming roles, a pecking order. That and most of the cast of characters feel compelled to acting out of character, which further muddies the social waters. You ask yourself why you weren’t just left alone between May and August with the Wii and plenty of Netflix streaming in your own den. Yet there is this prerogative. We’re getting out of the house, to points afar, and we’re gonna have FUN, dammit!
Nothing is less fun than mandatory fun, especially when you’re in your teens.
Here we go again on the way-back machine. Your friendly blogger mines his past to make relevant this installment’s existence…
When I was a kid, about a billion years ago, my grandparents had a monthly rental at a beach community—an incorporated summer village—on New York’s Fire Island. Quit snickering. It’s not all gays and syringes on the shore. Okay, it’s not just that.
The little ville of under 200 was called Saltaire, a little pun openly denied it being dubbed after some seaside town in the UK. Whatever. Fire Island itself is wedged between Coney Island and the Hamptons, and is a protected national seashore. The summer villages were established before Parks & Recreations clamped down in the 1960s. Fire Island is about 25 miles long and a mere quarter mile deep. A barrier island; a big dune bolstered by an aquifer and a lot of scattered cottages floating above, all waving a finger at petulant Momma Nature. The place really shouldn’t be there, it defying tides, climate change and hurricanes.
But there it was, and for me almost a decade of summers. Simple, squat beach coming homes settled against the Atlantic dunes. Some even might’ve had cable. These idylls, pieces of summer humanity bookended by seagull splattered protected dunes and unique species of both waterfowl and pine. To give you an idea about how removed Saltaire was from civilization, there were no cars. There were only boardwalks, quite literally made of boards. The only real motor vehicles around were a pair of beater, MacGyver’d pickup trucks that collected the garbage every Monday. Those and the occasional Rascal scooter. The rest of the time it was bicycles and flip-flops.
It was nice for a kid. I was especially lucky to get away for a month every summer from my boring inland existence to have access to not one, but two beaches to slop around in. To the south was the grey, unpredictable Atlantic, rife with seashells and angry waves that made bodyboarding a Knievel-like activity. To the north was the bay, clouded with jellyfish and puddled ferry exhaust but still some really good fishing. It was like a Caribbean red-headed stepchild, with more seaweed.
Hey. Here’s a fave tidbit of mine regarding the frontier nature of my summer ventures. Fire Island is less than 25 miles outside the City. It’s cradled by the Atlantic and Long Island’s Great South Bay. Winds there reign. A/C was not necessary in Saltaire. The two bodies of water acted like Freon, and with the prevailing winds, the entire island was buffeted all the time by a steady breeze. The temp on Fire Island was usually 15 degrees cooler than in the City, with next to no humidity most of the time.
Here’s another (hey, I’m only trying to establish rapport here): back in the day, cable TV was an expensive rarity out there, and the Internet was nary a wet dream. To get in touch with the outside world, you needed a solid, CRT TV with a pair of rabbit ears. Aerials. Back then, TV freqs still rode on airwaves, and you had to hook up your set with this doohickey to capture said waves to get broadcasts. Being so near the City, one could scoop up programming for free. Really. No cable fees. No HBO either, but hey, we all gotta make sacrifices. I used to get my Law & Order fix this way with virtual crystal clear reception aided by a few strands of aluminum foil. That and I also had the rowdy NYC rock and talk stations (which is where I first heard Howard Stern and the Greaseman) on the radio to comfort me.
This be frontier days.
A good portion of the time was spent away from the TV (and my blessed Nintendo), and being hunkered down with my folks, my sisters, my aunts, their kids, my mom’s parents and the occasional, extra member of my extended, unknown family that I only saw every third Xmas. The place my grandparents rented was pretty accommodating for all these bodies. I at least had a bedroom all to myself, which was often empty because, hey, two beaches. But every night it was sovereign that all 800 of us sat down and had dinner. First and foremost to eat, then to squeeze out whatever convo we could to extol the value made with our day.
This sucked. It was like your third stroll through the SATs. Sure, dinner chat was nice, but having to justify how meaningful your day was praise Jesus? Why? What for? Such a slog. And an embarrassing one at that. With these strangers? We all have to open up? Where’s my Nintendo? I’ve yet to beat Zelda on the Second Quest!
Here the respite of the beach became stifling, us having to make the elephant-in-the-room social mixing every dinner. Trying to maintain a faux-Norman Rockwell-esque image was quite the stressor. C’mon, let’s face facts. As much as you may love your family, being in close proximity with them for too extended a period can drive you all to a scene out of Lord of the Flies. My escape? A lot of the times, I scammed a meal at one of my friends’ places. Sometimes I even cooked. Really, anything to avoid the Gregory House routine. I just wanted to have my own summer, especially when I was a teenager. I needed to be far away from these strange adults what with their pretensions and an inability to socialize without wine and beer.
All right. Maybe back then I didn’t really think that way. Girls and scoring free beer were foremost on my puberty-ridden mind. What I did know that a vacation was supposed to be a getaway far away from what troubled you. Especially off the mainland…
Duncan (James) is on the summer vacation from hell. He finds himself wedged in the airless car with his timid, divorcee mother Pam (Collette), her boorish new boyfriend Trent (Carrell), and his stuck-up daughter Steph (Levin). Duncan and Trent do not get along at all, and now they’re both on their way to three months of antagonism. Duncan wanted to spent his summer with his dad out in California, but no go. Pam wants to establish a new family dynamic with Trent and Steph. Besides, Duncan is only 14, so what say does he have?
After barely a week at Trent’s Long Island summer shack, Duncan soon realizes that this trip is an outing for grown-ups only. He spends his days watching his mom, Trent and his buddies Kip (Corddry) and Joan (Peet) get drunk, high and adolescent along with their boozy neighbor Betty (Janney) who serves as the ringleader for this endless bacchanal. Duncan grinds his teeth and broods and knows if he doesn’t get out this place soon he’s gonna starting looking for a rifle and a clock tower.
At least Duncan finds an ally amidst all this sh*t. Betty’s leggy daughter Susanna (Robb) has been in his place before for many of these summers, and has been so ignored and jaded by these so-called vacations that she’s resigned herself to being a second-class citizen. In her droll manner Susanna puts it best, “It sucks here.”
Having had his fill, Duncan steals a bike and pedals into town for some action, anything else than feel alienated. He stumbles into the local pizza joint for a slice when a ruckus over at the Pac-Man machine catches his ears. Roguish Owen (Rockwell) is rocking the game and gets all philosophical over this arcade classic with the awkward Duncan. Owen recognizes Duncan as one of the hundreds of bored teens he’s seen on vacation here. Turns out, Owen is a manager at the local water park, and offers up Duncan the chance to swing by. Looks like this kid needs a little fun.
Finally, some adult who takes interest in Duncan’s lousy predicament! Duncan finishes up Owen’s game and later scoots over to Water Wizz to see what he’s all about. Turns out there is a side to the town that actually cares about what teens really want out of their summer: breakdancing…
I had a unique opportunity when watching The Way Way Back. I usually watch my movies alone, late at night when I won’t be interrupted. I get all curled up with my pen, clipboard and a few shots of Irish whiskey. Not the case this time.
My Dad had stopped by earlier. He crashed shortly after dinner and came to around midnight for a raid on the fridge. I had already bunkered down with the BD player and my drink, when he wandered into the den and asked what was up. I explained my blog activity. He saw Steve Carrell on the screen and made himself at home on the sofa. Until two in the morning, after the movie had concluded, I shared my first social viewing of the next subject here at RIORI. It reminded me of dinners at Saltaire, but not nearly as excruciating. There was some prodding, like this was a klatsch, but more often than not I kept my comments to myself. Most just went on the clipboard.
As grateful as I am for having my folks introduce me to the magical world of movies at a young, water-headed age, they are INSUFFERABLE to watch actual movies with. I always get an endless bombardment of questions. What’s going on? Who’s that guy? What just happened? What year is this? No, I mean it. Is it 1982 or 2026? What’s this lump on my thigh? Got any more whiskey? A piece of advice: if you really want to watch a movie, do it alone. Unless it’s porn. Then have a trio handy.
Here’s how Back managed to fit under the guidelines of The Standard. The movie was sort of well received, even though its feel had been done before. It wasn’t a flop, but there was a definite round peg/square hole thought process going into the marketing of Back, and its returns reflected that. The producers had a wonky idea in unleashing this little caper on a maybe-suspecting public that may have led to its early theatrical run demise. Back was dropped in the middle of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. A dinky little indie film about a disaffected teen—a tried-and-true but overdone movie device—had to go up against the likes of Pacific Rim, Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger (okay, maybe not such a big threat there). What were the powers-that-be smoking to think that Juno Lite could compete against giant robots, train chases and…well, another Steve Carrell vehicle? This took some balls. Not a lot of brains, but a certain amount of cajones. Well, following your balls makes way for pulling a lot of boners.
Oh, shut up. That’s the best pun you’ve ever heard.
Anyway, a few scenes into The Way Way Back, I got a feeling of—to paraphrase Kurt Cobain—“this smells like Little Miss Sunshine.” I didn’t know until later that co-writer/directors Faxon and Rash wrote Sunshine’s screenplay. I figured that I enjoyed that pastiche well enough that I would enjoy Back, too. I’ll admit, not at first. I felt there was something lacking here, but I couldn’t be sure what. Admittedly, Back is slow to get started and find its footing. The humor takes a while to warm up, but when it eventually does, its momentum is gleeful and sunny without being too cloying.
Back is at heart a character study. It’s got a great ensemble cast, and the plot—approaching but not quite arriving at a derivative coming-of-age story—is well handled by these misfits. At times Back comes perilously close to self-parody; although the cast acts well enough, their roles are stereotypical (James’ awkward teen, Robb’s near-dream girl status, Collete’s willowy divorcee, etc). But there’s some meat on the bones, so I went along with second course.
Steve Carrell as Trent is a delight. He plays smarmy very well, and it’s nice change of pace for him to play against type. Carrell made his mark on The Daily Show playing a bumbling, nervous sort with a streak of naïveté sneaking in the background. With that job and later the movies roles he’s had, he’s carved out a niche as being cuddly. Not here. Trent is a blustery, prickly, condescending lout to everyone, and saves his best sh*t for Duncan. He delivers his cutting remarks with patronizing aplomb. My father’s comments about Trent—being an ardent Carrell fan—with increasing disbelief was repeating “What an assh*le!” punctuated with some giggles. Here Carrell plays a villain we love to hate, and that’s lots of fun.
Our two teen leads, James and Robb, play their ill at ease and snarky characters respectively with ease. I liked how their characters were so down with each other. There’s really no flirtation between them (well, not at first), just two shoved aside kids who befriend each other through their lonesomeness and shared unhappiness. Misery loves company and all that. It’s often how you make friends for the duration of a lousy family vacation in an unfamiliar place. And you can practically taste Duncan’s awkwardness on his little jaunt. F*ck, you can see it. Does James have a hunchback with that posture? And his flat affect throughout most of the film becomes such a badge of honor that when he actually cracks a smile, it’s almost jarring.
Robb has a subtle sass. Her aloofness and sarcasm teeters towards another teen stereotype: the unattainable girl next door. What’s nice here is that Faxon and Rash turn this concept on its ear. It is Susanna that seeks out Duncan, rather than the other way ‘round. Sensing his despair, Susanna figures she’s found a sympathetic ear to bend. Her mom and dad are recently divorced too, so there you have it. It’s the subtle touches here and there that makes Back work.
What’s not subtle at all in Back is Rockwell’s Owen, the slovenly, unhinged Water Wizz manager. I really liked him. A lot. His Owen was a f*cking riot, and Rockwell walked away with the movie. He had the best lines, and delivered them with such offhand, wicked humor that I was snickering then eventually laughing out loud. He reminded me of Bill Murray in Meatballs, alternating between d*ckhead and brotherly with equal effectiveness. Why isn’t he in more movies? He’s got “reliable character actor” written all over him.
What I got out of Back, if there was any real message to convey, was an examination of outsider status. Duncan and Susanna feel neglected and dissed. Trent crowbars his way into Pam’s already fragile state-of-mind, as well as Kip, Betty and Joan beating her over the head with wine, weed and all-night parties on the beach. Owen just loves being the rogue monkey, and flaunts being an oddball to any willing audience (or unwilling, as his long-suffering girlfriend Caitlyn, played gamely by Maya Rudolph). The entire cast is made up of fishes out of water, and we all at some point in or lives feel left of center. Pick your character from Back’s cast and play piggyback.
There are some films that challenge you, what with terse characters, labyrinthine plotting, dark humor and/or gut-wrenching dramatics. Back has none of that, and sometimes that works. Back is equal parts juvenile and dramatic, both with a light, offbeat touch (e.g.: the breakdancing scene). Yes, it’s offbeat, but manages to steer clear of the hackneyed term “quirky” that so plagues films like this one. I think “quirky” has replaced “original” as the go-to word to describe an indie film that defies a once undeniable uniqueness, at least by the pros. No, Back is not original, but it does have enough body to kept it afloat. I wouldn’t mind watching it again, so I got that going for me. Which is nice.
I know I’ve been pretty reserved and polite in this review. Back put me in a mellow mood that lasted until the next day. A first. And frankly I needed a break. After three crappy movies in a row, Back was a welcome respite. Not to worry though. I’m looking down the barrel of an action flick staring former Oscar shoo-in Jodie Foster. Next time I’ll return to being snarky and vicious. Promise.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it takes a while to build up steam. But if you’re patient, it’ll ultimately be rewarding. Just keep holding…and holding. Still holding. Okay, you’re cleared for holding…
- Did I mention that Back had some really good pacing? The movie ran a little over 90 minutes, and for this story, that was the Goldilocks zone.
- “Not even food courts are safe.”
- Pac-Man as philosophy? Candy Land as metaphor? I played a lot of video and board games at Saltaire. None of them spoke to me beyond “destroy your opponent.” Wait a minute…
- “Enjoy therapy.”
- The plate-clearing scene. Almost heartbreaking.
- “The car’s just the right amount of sh*tty.”
- A Fleetwood Mac reference?
- It took me a while to divine the meaning of the movie’s title. On the road trip to Saltaire, we borrowed my grandparents’ huge Ford LTD wagon to transport all our sh*t. The trunk was so spacious, it even had a flip up seat like a Murphy bed, facing backwards. We commonly called this sitting in “the way, way back” of the car. The movie starts with Duncan balefully staring out from the way, way back, and (SPOILER) concludes that way too. A better metaphor than Candy Land, I think.
Jodie Foster’s kid’s gone missing on her cross-country flight! This wasn’t in the Flightplan!