8/1/2013 - A young teen, stuck with his mother and her unpleasant boyfriend for a summer, finds friends and confidence at a water park in The Way Way Back, a sweet dramady from two of the co-writers of The Descendants.
Specifically, from Nat Faxon (who I liked immensely as Ben in the canceled Ben and Kate) and Jim Rash (best known as Dean Pelton on Community). The pair also co-direct this movie and appear onscreen as quirky employees of Water Wizz, a water park in the ocean-side town where the movie takes place.
Duncan (Liam James) is headed for an extended stay at the beach house of Trent (Steve Carell), a man who is the textbook definition of the word that rhymes with “bass mole.” Trent is Duncan’s mom Pam’s (Toni Collette) boyfriend. Trent, Pam, Duncan and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), are all going to spend the summer together, sort of a practice for being a family. But Trent picks at and needles Duncan relentlessly. Still fragile-seeming after a fairly recent divorce, Pam either doesn’t notice or chooses not to notice how much Duncan despises Trent and wants nothing to do with him. After a few agonizing days spent with Trent and Pam, Duncan heads off on his own and meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the underachieving manager of the local water park. Perhaps sensing something of himself in the lost Duncan, Owen takes him under his wing and gives him a job at the park. There, with the swimsuit-ogling Roddy (Nat Faxon), the Eeyore-like Lewis (Jim Rash) and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), the one responsible adult whose failing is a soft spot for Owen, the shy Duncan comes out of his shell and finds a place to be his own man. Confidence from the park even bleeds into his home life, where he gets up the courage to start a friendship with neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
Like Duncan and Steph, Susanna’s parents are divorced, and her mother, Betty (Allison Janney), is one of the many adults neglecting and horrifying their children by acting, as she said, like they’re all on adult spring break. Adults acting like children and children trying to figure out who they themselves are is the overarching theme of this movie that is not quite as funny as I’d hoped but also not weighed down by emotional struggles.
Performances are really what make the movie work and The Way Way Back is lucky to have a lot of really great ones. Steve Carell must be delighted to play an overt jerk. He is excellent at giving us a character who can be cruel but is also insecure and has a touch of sweaty desperation about him. It’s like a curdled version of Michael Scott, one with all the heart rotted out.
Collette and Janney each offer a variation on a woman trying to rebuild her life after being left. In Collette, we get fear and unsteadiness. In Janney, we get a woman who is as loud as possible, perhaps to keep the quiet at bay. In Rockwell’s Owen we get a more good-natured example of arrested development, but Rudolph’s Caitlin shows that there are consequences to not acting your age, even if you’re not a man bullying a 14-year-old.
The character at the heart of the movie, the one played by Liam James, is perhaps the least well-developed — but that kind of works. Duncan is still figuring out who he is, still figuring out what he’ll put up with to help his mother be happy. Even though it feels like his character spends one too many scenes gritting his teeth at the horrible Trent, it also makes sense that a 14-year-old wouldn’t have the confidence to know, definitively, when he’s within his rights to push back.
The Way Way Back is sweet and funny, delivering some surprisingly poignant moments in a light summer-fun package. B
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material. Written and directed by Jim Rash and Nathan Faxon, The Way Way Back is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Searchlight.