Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Way, Way Back

Go To

"This is the place where dreams are made! Or destroyed! It depends on how you feel about working at a waterpark!"
Owen, improvising an "inspirational" song on the spot for Duncan

A 2013 Coming of Age Dramedy film written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, in which the protagonist, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), is dragged along on a family vacation with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan never quite finds his feet until he gets a job at a water park run by Manchild Owen (Sam Rockwell), and starts to form a bond with a local girl named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

This film provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Time Period: Apparently the script was originally set in The '80s. The decision was made to change it to modern times, but we rarely see any technology invented in the last thirty years. Most notably, a major part of the plot is that Duncan disappears for entire days and his mother chides him for not leaving a note. The lack of cell phones is a glaring thing in a 21st-century setting.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The normally happy and goofy Owen becomes noticeably more serious when he finally encounters Trent and steps between him and Duncan with a body language that makes clear he would love nothing more than an excuse to break Trent's face into a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Bickering Couple, Peaceful Couple: Trent and Pam are the bickering couple to Owen and Caitlin's peaceful couple. Despite Pam's efforts to make their relationship work, Trent remains a manipulative Jerkass who cheats on her and treats her son as a glorified servant. In contrast, despite Owen's Manchild tendencies, he is clearly hurt when Caitlin threatens to leave him and makes a sincere effort to apologize and change himself.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Owen is this towards Duncan and the group of three friends from the waterpark. Also doubles as Big Brother Instinct.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Subverted when Duncan tries to kiss Susanna in a quiet moment and she refuses. Played straight towards the end when she kisses him goodbye.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends at Duncan's POV as he sits at the back of the Buick, as they go to and leave from Water Wizz respectively.
  • Butt-Monkey: Lewis at the waterpark, Neil/Ming Lee, and Trent certainly treat Duncan as one.
  • The Cast Show Off: Sam Rockwell gets to show off his dancing skills at Lewis' farewell party.
  • Caught Coming Home Late: Trent catches Duncan coming home late and both have a talk about it.
  • Censorship by Spelling:
    Betty: (describing another family) They called me a 'see-you-next-Tuesday.' To my face.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: Though from the start this movie has some degree of intensity, it begins as a standard Coming of Age story and is fairly predictable. However, some Genre-Busting occurs as the story takes some dark turns.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Owen, Roddy, and eventually Duncan after he learns a trick from the first two involving having beautiful bikini-clad girls wait a little longer than usual before going down the slide.
  • Commonality Connection: Both Duncan and Susanna have a moment of connection when they realize that they both have an absent dad and they both try to stay away from their houses because their mothers are just acting weird.
  • Cool Car: Trent's 1970 Buick Estate Wagon whose backwards-facing third-row seat lends the movie its' title. Justified in that he made an effort to source the same model his family owned when he was a kid.
    • Then there's Owen's "just shitty enough" Cavalier convertible and the girly pink bicycle Duncan finds in the garage and commandeers as his own transportation.
  • Crappy Holidays: Seen from Duncan's point of view at the beginning. It gets better though once he starts enjoying himself.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Implied. When Trent corners Duncan at the water park, Owen effortlessly slides between the two and blocks Trent's way. When Trent orders Duncan back to the car, Owen stares him down and Trent scurries away.
  • Dance-Off: Duncan is challenged to a dance-off at Water Wizz when he has to break up a group of patrons whose dancing causes a congestion hazard. He dances terribly, but the kids admire his willingness to participate and let him "win" as a result.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Owen. Others even constantly have to tell him to be serious.
    • Susanna's family is quite a snarkfest. Watch the banter of Peter and Betty, and then Susanna towards Duncan.
  • Dirty Coward: Trent's bravado and cruelty disappear when he's faced with someone actually willing to stand up to him, practically running away in terror when Owen stands up to him.
  • The Ditz: Played with by Owen; while he acts like an irreverent goofball most of the time, he has an uncanny knack for sensing when people are distraught and dispenses some genuine nuggets of wisdom at key moments. It's unclear how much of his behavior is an act and how much is his actual personality.
  • Door Dumb: Duncan tries to climb the fence of the water park at night. Then Roddy shows up pushing open a door nearby.
  • The Eeyore: Lewis, who speaks with a flat monotone and seldom shows any emotion more energetic than Dull Surprise.
  • Emo Teen: Duncan and Susanna. Both loosen up as the summer goes on.
  • Employee of the Month: Duncan becomes this at the water park to the surprise of his parents.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Two notable ones:
    • Trent asking Duncan (insistently) how he, Duncan, rates himself on a 1-to-10 scale. When Duncan says he's a 6, Trent tells him he's a 3.
    • Owen, who Duncan has just met playing Pac-Man in a diner. Owen shrugs off Duncan's advice that each Pac-Man game has a pattern, saying that anyone can learn a pattern and that knowing it would take all the fun out of each game, showing Owen's disdain for organization and patterns.
  • Extreme Doormat: Duncan calls his mom out for being this, as she knows about Trent cheating on her but does nothing about it.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Trent tries to give off the vibe of being a likable parental figure and boyfriend, but he's actually an adulterous, emotionally abusive control freak just beneath the surface.
  • Flat Character: Steph, who falls into the Bratty Teenage Daughter trope to a T.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: Who in their right mind would call a water park "Water Wizz"? They did.
  • Free-Range Children: Duncan ends up as this when he's left alone at the beach house. He finds an old bicycle and starts riding around town, where he soon discovers the water park. However, the parents do get upset when Duncan doesn't come home at night.
  • Freudian Excuse: It's implied that Owen's dad was a lot like Trent, which explains his Manchild behavior.
    • With having Trent as a father (whom she only see twice a year, probably for a good reason), it's no wonder why Steph is the way she is.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Trent, Joan, and Kip don't seem to really like Betty, but her and Pam seem to be great friends by the end of the film.
  • Friend to All Children: While Owen playfully teases the patrons of the water park, he is also sensitive to 14-year-old Duncan's problems and teaches 10-year-old Peter to not be ashamed of his lazy eye.
  • Gaslighting: Trent does this to Pam when he tries to convince her that he's not sleeping with Joan. Pam also alludes that her ex-husband had done this to her as well.
    Pam: (to Trent) Don't make me feel crazy. I've been through this before!
  • Good-Times Montage: A montage showing Duncan and Susanna having a good time at the water park.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Susanna, the only teen in Trent's neighborhood who is kind to Duncan.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Betty. It's also heavily implied that Steph is one too.
  • Hate Sink: Trent. There doesn't seem to be a single redeeming quality to the guy. He's cruel, dishonest, emotionally abusive, adulterous, passive aggressive, controlling, petulant and generally just awful to be around.
  • In-Series Nickname: Duncan becomes known as "Pop 'n Lock" by the staff and patrons of Water Wizz, to the point that his "employee of the month" photo uses that to identify him.
  • Ironic Echo: "What are you starin' at, perv?"
    • Also, "Don't die wondering."
  • I Want You to Meet an Old Friend of Mine:
  • Jerkass: Trent is very much this, as he constantly berates Duncan and emotionally abuses his mom. It doesn't help that it's implied that he's cheating on Duncan's mom with a friend.
  • Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk: Trent. There seems to be no redeeming qualities to him whatsoever.
  • Kick the Dog: Hardly a scene passes where Trent isn't doing this to Duncan, culminating in revealing that Duncan's dad didn't want him for the summer out of sheer spite.
  • Like an Old Married Couple: Allison Janney has described her character Betty as having this with her son Peter (River Alexander).
  • Manchild: Owen. To a lesser extent, every adult except Caitlin.
    Susanna: It's like Spring Break for adults.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A Rare Male Example in Owen, who helps Duncan get out of his shell and become well-liked by the staff and customers of Water Wizz.
  • Mondegreen Gag: Joan misheard the lyrics of Mr Mister's "Kyrie" as "Carry a laser own the road that I must travel".
  • Motor Mouth: Betty. Especially in her opening scene which borders on being a monologue.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Susanna, as well as the girls at the waterpark that Roddy, Owen, and Duncan ogle in line for the water slides.
  • Nice Guy: Owen. Underneath his playful exterior, it's clear he cares about the employees and customers at Water Wizz.
    • Kip as well. He tries to get Duncan out of wearing the life vest on the boat, and he doesn't dismiss Betty's wishes to go back out on the boat.
  • No Social Skills: Duncan at first.
  • Parental Neglect: Duncan suffers from this for most of the movie, as Pam is too wrapped up in her own issues with Trent and barely pays any attention to his moods and feelings.
  • Parental Substitute: Owen ends up becoming a surrogate father to Duncan.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Duncan has his problems with Trent.
  • Pick on Someone Your Own Size: This is Trent's relationship with Duncan. Trent says he wants them to have a relationship of trust and respect, but he constantly belittles Duncan and treats him as either a nuisance or a servant.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Owen's default state is to shoot rapid-fire jokes at everything and everyone around him. It's Played for Drama when Caitlin becomes exasperated with his Manchild antics and is ready to leave him because of it.
  • Popcultural Osmosis Failure: To Owen's surprise, none of the kids at the ride know of Footloose or its 2011 remake.
  • Professional Slacker: Owen. He even walks around the park in his bathrobe.
  • Request for Privacy: Duncan asks his mother and her boyfriend to leave so that he can say goodbye to Owen in private.
  • The Reveal: Kip nonchalantly mentions that the motor on his boat has been out for weeks. Making it obvious that Trent was in fact cheating on Pam with Joan.
  • Riddle for the Ages: How did Duncan pass Owen on the slide?
  • Slippery Swimsuit: Duncan loses his trunks during his first slide.
  • Sour Outside, Sad Inside: We see a brief moment where Steph, having recently broken up with Neil, admitted that she was going through a lot and would've appreciated having a friend. Though it doesn't stop her from calling Susanna a "bitch" just before.
  • Souvenir Land: Water Wizz. According to Owen, it hasn't been updated since the early 1980s.
  • Super Gullible: Duncan falls for each jokes Owen pulls on him.
  • Tagalong Kid: Peter, who begs Duncan to take him to Water Wizz.
  • Terrified of Germs: Lewis is a germophobe who works in the rental booth because nobody ever visits it. He even claims that his doctor said water is bad for his face.
  • Tsundere: Caitlin. Somewhat justified by the fact that Owen is unbelievably irresponsible.
  • Two Decades Behind: Done deliberately, justified, played with, lampshaded and invoked as the point. The movie shows quite a lot of adults pining for the older days, but as we are seeing the events unfold through Duncan, he is understandably creeped out by what he sees and doesn't understand the nostalgia they feel.
  • Vague Age: Susanna. It's stated that she's older than Duncan (who's 14), but young enough where she feels comfortable to admit her feelings for him.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Vladimir, Ishmael and Ming Lee, the three friends from the waterpark.
    • Owen and Lewis count as well.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Owen tries to get help with Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero." He gets weird looks.
    Owen: I'm holding out for a hero. He's gotta be strong, and he's gotta be fast. And he's gotta be fresh from the fight.
  • With Friends Like These...: The adult friend group.
  • Would Hurt a Child: When Duncan reaches his boiling point and pushes Trent, there is no hesitation before he tries to push Duncan back.

"You gotta go your own way. And you, my friend, are going your own way."