It's all very Tom Sawyer at the movies right now, lots of boys having the summer of their lives. In the drama Mud, two bayou adolescents have a secret adventure that makes them into men – they help a fugitive from the law (Matthew McConaughey) repair a boat so he can escape with his true love (Reese Witherspoon).
In the comedy The Kings of Summer, three boys live out the fantasy of running away from home and back to nature – they slip the confines of their perfectly ordinary families and build a house in the woods where they can live (however temporarily) without rules.
In the comedy This is the End, a posse of pampered movie stars (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruschel, James Franco et al) have a darker adventure – they face down the actual apocalypse and learn that the most important things in life are one's bros.
And in the new dramedy The Way Way Back (it opened in select cities yesterday), a miserable, somewhat introverted kid named Duncan (Liam James), forced to suffer through a summer in a Massachusetts beach house with the obnoxious guy (Steve Carell, wonderfully convincing as a meanie) who's dating his mom (Toni Collette), creates a new family for himself in an unlikely place: a water park called Water Wizz.
The coming-of-age film, especially the kind that takes place over a summer, has perennial appeal, say Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writer/directors of The Way Way Back. (The title refers to the third, rear-facing seat in a station wagon.)
"We've all been there," Rash, age 42, says in a recent joint phone interview with Faxon, 37.
"Whether you went to the same destination every year, or to different places, there's a vulnerability when you're on the road, away from home and the elements of life that you can control. You're at the mercy of the new environment and the people in it, and that makes you more open to change.
"And you're out of the place where you've been labelled – you're allowed to be a clean slate," Rash continues.
"That's a powerful time for a kid. So these stories have this driving force of hope that the main character will find a better sense of himself and be carried into a better chapter of his life."
As the film points out, you don't have to be a teen to come of age. Sam Rockwell, 44, plays the water park's manager, Owen, who's stuck on the cusp of his own adulthood, and recognizes a kindred spirit in Duncan.
"You can't help but love these kinds of movies," Rockwell says in a separate phone interview. "The Flamingo Kid, Meatballs, Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It's a universal topic, because everybody's been a teenager, so everybody understands that very strange time. There's a nostalgia for the moment where you made that turn and realized, 'Nobody gives a damn, I'm gonna go do [stuff].'"
Rockwell calls his years at San Francisco School of the Arts (Margaret Cho was a classmate) "a mix of great and [expletive] horrific." He got picked on in middle school, and learned how to fight. Then he hung out with "the funny, nerdy kids" – until he realized they weren't meeting any girls. He started hanging out with a mixed-race crowd, and got into fashion and dancing. His parents were both actors, so he found "more of my identity" through acting in high school – though he dropped out before graduating.
"But I really didn't take it seriously until I moved to New York City and studied acting with William Esper for two years in the Sanford Meisner technique," Rockwell says. "That changed my whole perspective. I was like, 'Okay, this is not just a lark.' It was more like a calling, like Jedi training. I realized acting was a responsibility, something to be taken seriously. There is a craft and a science to it." He dove into theatre, along with a new crew, "guys like Phil [Seymour] Hoffman, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Ethan Hawke – we made our bones in theatre and independent film," says Rockwell, who became a member of New York's Labyrinth Theatre Company in 1992. "We always go back to the theatre."
But when Rash's and Saxon's script came his way, Rockwell signed on immediately. "It was just a dream part," he says, "a chance to do that Bill Murray, Walter Matthau, Vince Vaughn archetype, the misanthrope adult who talks to children like they're adults. I was in the theatre as a kid, I was around adults a lot. There were several who were like uncles and aunts, who were a big influence on me. I always respected the adults who didn't talk down to me. I think most kids respond to that. They're not stupid."
The role gave Rockwell a chance to do a little more coming of age of his own – to edge his own persona closer to the adult roles he wants, and away from the smart-ass types he's played in films such as Charlie's Angels and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. "I don't want to play boy-men any more," he says. "I just played an ex-Navy Seal and a divorce lawyer, within a month. I'm looking for more mature characters."
The Way Way Back has autobiographical elements from the directors' youthful life-changing experiences, too. Faxon and Rash spent a lot of time as kids at water parks – Rash in North Carolina and Faxon in Massachusetts (they shot the film in Wareham, Mass., at a park actually named Water Wizz) – and the film sprang from some of their experiences. "The first scene of the movie, where Steve Carell's character asks Duncan where he rates himself on a scale from one to 10, and then says he'd rate Duncan a three – my stepfather had that conversation with me, pretty much verbatim, when I was 14, as we drove to our summer vacation in Michigan," Rash says.
"So that's what we started with. We upped the ante of the delivery, and increased the amount of passive/aggressive/buddyness in the tone, but I think every person derives things from painful memories. I think it's always cathartic to use that stuff, almost as therapy for yourself, and put it all out there, because I think a lot of people identify with that. It makes for good stories."
That stepfather was only in Rash's life for a few years, and Rash has no idea where he is now – or whether he's aware of Rash's many successes. He and Faxon met in 1998, in the Los Angeles sketch/improv/theatre troupe the Groundlings, where they both started in the second-string Sunday company. They made each other laugh, and started writing sketches together, eventually moving into the main company. They wrote a TV pilot – "mostly because we were frustrated with the roles we were auditioning for as actors," Faxon says – then moved into writing TV. They wrote The Way Way Back in the summer of '05, and in the course of shopping it around, they met Alexander Payne, who hired them to co-write the 2011 film The Descendants. When that won the Oscar for best screenplay, Faxon and Rash were able to get financing to co-direct The Way Way Back themselves. They also have regular gigs on TV: Rash plays the crazy dean on Community, and Faxon co-headlines the Fox sitcom Ben and Kate.
"We started as actors, and we still are," Faxon says. "We wrote because we wanted to write stuff for ourselves, and that led to directing. Hopefully we'll now continue to meld all three into future projects."
"But we're still cautious," Rash adds. "I wouldn't say, by any means, that we've made it and have everything at our disposal. We're not listening to the people who say, 'Now that this has happened, you can do anything you want.' I think that's scary."
They now have a new summer to remember – shooting their first film as directors in the middle of a heat wave at a working water park, which was open to the public even while they were filming. "It was slightly torturous, because we were never able to go down the slides," Faxon says. "All you wanted to do was get wet, but we had too many responsibilities." (Rockwell recalls getting reprimanded for "getting too R-rated" on the park's intercom while real families were there.)
On the last night of shooting there, however, the park did allow the company to stay late after they were finished, and they took over the place. "We ran wild," Faxon says. "It was such a release, to act like you were 13 again, screaming down all the rides. It was really, really fun." Not to mention life-changing.