In coming-of-age movies, there’s always a challenging ritual that propels a young person away from circumstances over which he has no control, to a life that he can better manage and even enjoy. In The Way Way Back, that symbolic moment which leads to a new order of things involves an amusement-park ride – an enclosed caterpillar-like structure one ebulliently slides down.
By setting the bulk of their movie in the Water Wizz, a water-themed amusement park, filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made the “play” archetype – here, the fun-styled nurturing provided by the park personnel towards teen misfit Duncan (Liam James) – a significant element of the narrative.
At The Way Way Back’s press conference, the movie’s co-directors and co-writers Faxon and Rash addressed the deeper dimensions of play in their movie. Even the contrast between Duncan’s emotionally stifling home base and the park factored in.
“We had long conversations with our director of photography John Bailey about how we could make the house feel more suffocating and isolating and sort of closed in,” says Faxon, who described those scenes as being shot from a lower angle, making the ceiling visible, so the audience could feel the same claustrophobia Duncan is experiencing. That sensation, he continued, was created to contrast with the upbeat personality of the Water Wizz.
Through the water park, it would be possible “to feel that Oz, that openness,” says Faxon, adding that shooting with a steadicam “to create movement and excitement” and using “a ton of walk-and-talk moments with Sam” helped support the goal “of trying to make it feel colorful and bright and open and fun and playful.”
Also instrumental in conveying the play archetype was the character of Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, one of two men in Duncan’s life. The first, says Faxon, is Trent (Steve Carell), Duncan’s mother’s (Toni Collette) bullying boyfriend. Sam, in contrast, is much more nurturing, with his “come into the fold” sincerity.
“Sam says, ‘Put on this shirt, you’re official,’ in other words, ‘Join this playground,’ which is pretty much how Owen operates in his mind,” says Faxon. “I think he is at his best for three months out of a year, in the sense he’s king while this park is open. And so there is sort of an ‘at play’ opportunity, in the sense this become’s Duncan’s Oz.”
Faxon believes that, because the water park nurtures all types of people to help them become more “playful and fun,” the activities associated with the water park themselves become a bit like a “celebration.”
As for the final game element – the slide through the water tunnel which, for this cautious teen, is no small triumph – Rash says it’s an image of birth. “The physical act of this movement is like this birth of this new chapter for Duncan,” he says. “Here was this kid that showed no fear in going town this tube and experiencing and moving into the next phase for him.”