Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013, USA
Trailers seems to do the films they are promoting no favours, mostly. They offer up the cliché moments as touchstones so that the audience knows what it’s getting into, which has the effect of either (a) giving too much away, and/or (b) misrepresenting the film at hand. Take the modest, unsurprising but appealing coming-of-age film “The Way, Way Back”: the trailer tends towards something that’s more “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” when the actual film is a little more subtle than that. For example, in the trailer Sam Rockwell is just the funny motormouth archetype – he plays Owen, a manager at Water Wizz waterpark – but he is a little more nuanced in the film so the trailer does no justice to his character or performance. Note how he puts himself between Steve Carrell’s condescending boyfriend and the somewhat shy son-figure Duncan (Liam James), a moment that implies backstory without having to spell things out.
Where Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “The Way, Way Back” is interesting is in its vision of a job being a place where the kid Duncan can process his meekness and relationships with older people. The first job is often a neglected topic in cinema, especially when considering how many coming-of-age films there are, and there are fewer that explore the workplace as a space that is positive for social development. One can go to “Deep End” for how hormonal and confusing a first job may be, or “Import/Export” for how hellish work can be in general, but “The Way Way Back” makes work a positive experience. Duncan makes the waterpark his own and comes out of his shell without becoming a tiresome extrovert.
The film has a fair amount of coming-of-age clichés – there is some pathetic phallacy and a losing-your-swimming-shorts moment, for example – but it seems to skate through them so that they aren’t laboured, as if it wants to do something else but doesn’t quite know how to. Likewise, the misogyny of the guys at the top of the waterslide making the women stand there just a minute longer so the feminine form can be ogled lacks the voice of female characterisation elsewhere: it jars against the respect shown elsewhere.
Nevertheless, it’s amusing, undemanding entertainment. Faxon and Rash’s script is sparky and subtle enough as a tale of people coming out of their shells, teenagers and adults alike, and left open-ended enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence. It is also a film steeped in the smallness of the world, leaving the dead-end properties of Water Wizz waterpark implied (for example, perhaps it one of the few places where Owen can get away with his schtick): life is what you make it, the film says, but never quite beats the audience over the head with this message, for its other theme is we are what we are. We may be left wondering how Trent will save the relationship with Duncan’s mother (probably he’ll pull some boorish, patriarchal bullshit out of the hat), but this is the tale of how Duncan found some confidence at a summer job.