Nat Faxon and Jim Rash didn't set out to make a comedy about divorce. Eight years ago, when the improv comedians–turned-actors-turned–Oscar-winning screenwriters started writing a coming-of-age script based on a particularly upsetting moment from Rash's childhood, they just wanted a happy ending. Yet almost all of the characters in The Way, Way Back, their directing debut, have suffered from divorce, as either heartbroken adults or powerless children. Among the kids who aren't all right is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a lonely boy who finds refuge under the wing of a motor-mouthed man-child manager (Sam Rockwell) at the Water Wizz water park.
In 2007, Faxon and Rash's script landed on the Black List, the industry's catalog of the best screenplays not in production. Over the film's long trek to the big screen, journeymen directors Shawn Levy (Real Steel, The Internship) and Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone, Selena Gomez's Monte Carlo) each were briefly attached to the project. While the writers waited for something to happen, Rash joined the cast of NBC's Community as the costume-loving Dean Pelton, and Faxon found supporting work in comedies like Bad Teacher and Zookeeper. Then The Descendants, which they co-wrote with director Alexander Payne, won an Academy Award for its screenplay. It was the time to strike.
Faxon explains, “Jim and I sat down with our producer, Kevin Walsh, and used the momentum from The Descendants to direct it ourselves, to do the movie on our own terms and realize our vision from start to finish” — a vision that included co-starring in the film as two of the water park's eccentric employees.
In the opening scene, Duncan is asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?” by his mother's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). “A 6,” Duncan replies — just above average. Trent swiftly corrects him: “I think you're a 3.”
Rash recalls, “That scene in the station wagon happened to me when I was 14, when we were on our way to our summer vacation with my stepfather at the time.” Even the numbers — 6 versus 3 — are lifted directly from Rash's past. He adds, “My stepfather wasn't that bad a guy. The reason we wanted Steve Carell is he brings an innate likability to Trent. He's not so much a demon as he is this complicated, tragic male figure.”
But the happy ending Faxon and Rash envisioned when they sat down to write the script isn't one that's concerned with doling out redemption to everyone. “There are certainly a lot of father themes [in the film], but the central story is between the mother and son,” Rash explains. That might surprise viewers, given Toni Collette's relatively short screen time as Duncan's mom, Pam (who is, at best, the fourth most important character).
Freud theorized that the reason artists create fiction is that stories, like dreams, are the fulfillment of unconscious, sometimes undesirable wishes. Faxon and Rash maintain that the “6 versus 3” incident and their shared love of water parks are the film's only autobiographical elements. “For me to be able to say [the film is autobiographical] would mean I had this amazing mentor,” Rash laughs. Yet given the directors' insistence on the importance of the mother-son bond, it's tempting to read the film as a kind of Oedipal revenge, especially when Rash, himself a child of divorce, declares that Pam “is wearing blinders and freaked and scared, and [needs to] realize she only needs one person.”
Rash's teen years during the Reagan era contrasts against that of The Way, Way Back's kid characters, who live in today's climate of divorce as the new normal. “When I was [Duncan's] age,” he says, “divorce was relatively newer. It certainly was going on, but way more families were staying together [than today]. Now people are realizing much faster that things aren't working out, that they're not in the long haul.”
Rash explains that the film is about “transition, but the transitions happen to be divorce and infidelity in the family.” Despite no intention to do so, then, he and Faxon have created a film about divorce — still so rare in Hollywood, especially from the children's perspective — that not only justifies parental separation but also exhibits a shrugging indifference to the integrity of the nuclear family.
That jaded wisdom makes The Way, Way Back a film the young Rash might've appreciated as a kid suffering through his mom's second marriage — and it's what makes it a sufficiently bitter feel-good tale for audiences today.