If you’ve seen a trailer for Fox Searchlight’s newest indie flick, The Way Way Back, you know the gist of the opening scene: Steve Carrell’s character, Trent, asks the son of his girlfriend to rate himself on a scale of one to 10.
“I don’t know. A six?” the young Duncan (Liam James) grudgingly replies.
“I think you’re a three.”
Ouch. In the trailers, this reads as a quick and funny bit. In the movie, it’s excruciating. It’s an opening scene so powerfully slow and painful that it hits you like a blow to the stomach. Trent is so douche-y and Duncan is so sad and pathetic that you immediately care about the dynamic between them.
Part of Trent’s reasoning for Duncan’s label of “three” is that he is never putting himself out there, and the first third of the movie basically proves him right. The kid can’t get a sentence out, he never stands up for himself, he is angry and clearly has a right to be but never does anything about it. His mom, Pam (Toni Collette), cares about her son, but maybe cares about impressing her new boyfriend and his friends more, and Duncan can’t figure out what to say to that. Plus there’s the cute, slightly older girl next door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who is maybe but maybe not out of his league.
Enter Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the local park Water Wizz, who offers Duncan not only a job but a community of hilarity to join. With gentle prodding and a constant sense of humor, Owen prods Duncan to be more than a three (or even a six). He suddenly has a presence, a personality, and a tan. Water Wizz becomes his daily escape and the staff becomes his family.
The cast of this film is incredible. Carrell injects Trent with such a high level of bullshit that you can’t even remember the man once played lonely manager with a heart of gold Michael Scott. I have never seen Liam James in anything before, but his portrayal of Duncan is so heartbreaking and raw that watching him feels like watching a pro. And Sam Rockwell nails Owen’s character and humor so thoroughly that every time he’s on screen you know you’re in for a treat.
Written by the same team who penned The Descendants a few years ago and marketed as from the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back is a perfect indie film. It’s sweet and sometimes predictable, but so rewarding and engaging that it doesn’t matter. If you enjoyed either The Descendants or Little Miss Sunshine, this film will touch you. So far, it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year.