The title The Way, Way Back refers to the backward-facing seat at the rear of an old Buick station wagon. There sits Duncan (Liam James), your average maladjusted 14-year-old boy. The car is being driven by his mom’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), who wants to make the family thing work but has a gruff way about him. He asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. The kid says 6, but Trent disagrees. He’d rate him a 3. It’s going to be a long summer.
The car is on the way to a seaside home that Trent has visited for years, the trip a chance for him to solidify his relationship with Duncan’s mom Pam (Toni Collette). The burgeoning family is met upon arrival by their boozy neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), who has a tendency to blurt out the truth to great comedic effect. Duncan seems more interested in Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the cute girl next door who’d be right at home in any young teen’s fantasy.
Boat trips and barbecue dinners dominate vacation life at first, but Duncan seeks escape from the pressures of family-building. He finds his refuge at Water Wizz, a rundown old water park run by the wise but immature Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes the kid under his wing, gives him a job and helps him find some self-confidence. It turns out to be just what Duncan needs, especially as his mother’s relationship with Trent is rocked and the small-town vibe becomes claustrophobic.
The Way, Way Back is a charming comedy that allows just enough real-life drama to creep into the story to keep it interesting. It’s written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also wrote The Descendants, and the pair are proving masters at capturing uncomfortable moments with a sympathetic eye toward the humor of difficult situations. There’s something a bit by-the-numbers about The Way, Way Back, but Faxon and Rash elevate the material above its sitcom roots.
This movie succeeds because the performances are right on, starting with Liam James as awkward Duncan. I know what an awkward 14-year-old looks like (trust me), and James adds notes of defiance and a stiffening spine that give Duncan some extra oomph. Carell is money as the smug Trent. I hate to say it, but I think Carell should stick to indie comedy. I’d much rather see him in films like this than in awful dreck like Burt Wonderstone.
The actresses are also all excellent, starting with Toni Collette as Pam, a strong woman trying to make the best of a relationship that her gut tells her is less than perfect. She comes across as very human and real, as does Janney and the liquored-up Betty. Characters like this can often become one-note bores, but Janney lets you know that there’s more to Betty than a cocktail glass and a one-liner. AnnaSophia Robb also makes an impression in a role that has little to it.
But stealing the movie is Sam Rockwell as Owen, the water park-owning man-child who inspires and guides Duncan toward geeky manhood. Rockwell makes the most of his time, charmingly chewing the scenery and creating a winning character you want to see more of. Rockwell works well with Maya Rudolph, who plays his long-suffering girlfriend/employee. There’s an element of melancholy to their situation (you don’t want to wake up 10 years down the line still working at a shitty water park), but they seem content in their mediocrity.