Socially awkward teenager Duncan is on a family vacation for the summer and couldn’t be more miserable. His mother’s boyfriend Trent is the worst of his tormentors. In the car ride on the way to the summer home, on a scale of one to ten, Trent gives Duncan a three and tells him to “get that number up by putting [himself] out there”. As Trent and his daughter continually berate Duncan, Duncan’s mother is powerless to do anything to stop them. The only place the awkward teenager can find any happiness is at a local water park run by a sarcastically humorous slacker named Owen. Trent destroys Duncan’s self-esteem and Owen rebuilds it.
What makes me give this movie an A+ above all else is the believability of each character. When I say Duncan is a socially awkward teenager, I’m not lying. He keeps to himself most of the time, he’s constantly frowning, he speaks with a blunt affect, and he can’t make conversation with cute girls without making them uncomfortable. Duncan sounds like a teenaged version of me in real life, so you’re damn right I’m rooting for him to find the love and friendship he needs.
Trent is the exact opposite of what a heroic character should be. He criticizes Duncan for every little thing, he cheats on Duncan’s mother while criticizing her as well, and pretty much has no redeemable qualities. TV Tropes dot org would refer to him as a Complete Monster, which is an annoying sociopath with no likeable traits. I used to have a step-father named Art and he was a living, breathing caricature of Trent. Naturally, I keep cheering for Trent to get flattened by a steamroller.
Owen, the water park owner who builds Duncan’s self-worth, is everything you could ever want in a role model (apart from the slacking off). He’s funny without being mean, he’s sarcastic, he’s charismatic, and whenever he’s not being goofy, his serious side is believable and warm. One of my favorite lines from Owen’s dialogue is when he sees Duncan sitting slouched over on a beach chair and jokingly says, “Excuse me, sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You’re having way too much fun and it’s making everyone uncomfortable.” Duncan actually tries to get up and leave before Owen says, “That wasn’t even my best material!”
The entire character roster of The Way Way Back is special in some way. Peter is a nerdy kid who has to wear an eye-patch because his eye stares too far to the right. Susanna is a cutie pie who tries to bring Duncan out of his shell with borderline romantic love. Even Pam (Duncan’s mother) has moments when we can root for her despite her passiveness toward Trent’s abusive ways.
The Way Way Back is a movie a lot of people can relate to. Okay, so not everybody gets to work at a water park with a charismatic charmer. There are times, however, when we feel out of place. We all have someone we consider to be our greatest critic and we all have someone who will pick us up if we seek out that person’s help. The movie reminds us that love is out there and its ours for the taking. It may be far away, it may be much closer. Either way, it’s there if you look for it. It doesn’t have to be a kissy-kissy kind of love. It could just be a casual friendship. Somebody out there likes you and somebody out there cares. That’s not just a myth perpetuated by cheesy romance movies. That’s god’s honest truth. A life without love of some kind is the true definition of loneliness. If you ever feel this way, don’t let any jerk call you a “three out of ten”. Rankings can never determine the true worth within us all.