Summer-set coming-of-age stories are about as American as apple pie. So it's fitting that The Way, Way Back is making its theatrical debut over the Independence Day holiday. It's sure to be a welcomed diversion on these stifling, muggy days, gently mocking the forced fraternizing of family vacations while unfolding the story of one boy's transition from wallflower to water park legend.
Liam James stars as Duncan, a 14-year-old dragged by his well-meaning single mom (Toni Collette) on a beach house vacation with her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his snooty teen daughter (Zoe Levin). The film's first scene shows us what a rough ride is in store for Duncan. While the women nap, Trent gives what may be one of the worst inspirational speeches every uttered. He tells Duncan the boy is a 3 out of 10, then urges him—well, berates him—into aspiring to be something more. Instead, Duncan decides to try to skirt quality time with Trent as much as possible, and soon finds his way to a water park where he meets a charismatic and devotedly immature manager named Owen (Sam Rockwell), who becomes Duncan's grinning mentor. Soon Duncan has a job at the water park and begins to forge an identity separate from Trent's damning perception of him. Remarkably, this scrawny kid with laughable dance skills becomes confident and cool.
Penned by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, this story has long been a passion project for the two. And once they won the Academy Award for their adapted screenplay The Descendants, they had the pull to get it made their way, with themselves at the helm. It's their first directorial effort on film, but the pair mindfully compiled their cast and crew, which keeps The Way, Way Back from feeling as clunky as you might expect from a debut. Celebrated cinematographer John Bailey reveals the Massachusetts town where the film was shot with a keen and romantic eye that makes the whole place scream with potential for the kind of rebirth so many of its characters crave. Academy Award-winning costume designer Ann Roth breathes detail into every scrap of fabric, from the eye-catching beachwear of Allison Janney's beach bum next-door-neighbor to the ratty T-shirt Duncan claims from the water park's lost and found. The location shooting lends the film an impressive honesty, but the dead-on casting means the stars really make The Way Way Back sing.
The story centers on Duncan, and to a degree his flirtation with the pretty, slightly older girl next door played by AnnaSophia Robb. Both teens aptly shoulder their scenes of teen angst and curious flirtation, though James lacks a certain spark. He gets a bit lost in the overwhelming charisma of his adult co-stars. Collette is heartbreaking as Pam, Duncan's mom who is trying to build a new family for him post-divorce, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness by settling with Trent. Carell has played an asshole for years on The Office, but his character here has an edge that doesn't allow us to like him. Trent is a bully and a bastard, and Carell boldly breaks with expectations by playing the role with aplomb. Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet earn some well-deserved laughs as Trent's married friends, Kip and Joan, and the waterpark offers up some guffaw-inducing moments courtesy of co-workers Maya Rudolph, and Faxon and Rash in minor roles. But it's Rockwell and Janney who run away with this movie.
When Duncan and his "family" pull into their beach house's driveway, Janney as extreme extrovert Betty blows in like a hurricane, introducing herself to Duncan and his mom, and quickly catching them up on all the hot gossip, which includes her husband leaving her because he came out of the closet, her subsequent falling off the wagon ("Accept it. Move on."), and the unfortunate rape of her niece ("Not even food courts are safe!") As inappropriate as just about everything out of her mouth is, it allows us to laugh after Trent's soul-crushing pep talk with Duncan Janney is sidesplitting throughout, whether she's chastising her lazy-eyed son, flirting with Corddry, or spreading rumors. But not just a clown, Janney gives Betty an intriguing layer of pathos as she bonds with Pam over shared disappointments.
Far away at the waterpark, Rockwell plays a fast-talking Svengali who is tailed by a flock of teen boys who idolize him for his devil-may-care attitude and schlumpy swagger. Owen is funny, friendly, and favors fun over just about anything else. He's exactly who you'd imagine would run a waterpark, and Rockwell's unbridled energy and easy smile make him easily appealing. But his tense relationship with Rudolph's eye-rolling Caitlin tells us that it's time Owen stop playing around and start growing up-- a lesson he takes to heart in part because of Duncan. And while some of the threads of the many characters in this comedy get dropped, Owen's and Duncan's wrap up with a rousing and satisfactory finale.
All in all, the story is bittersweet and moving, with vibrant and hilarious performances to enliven each scene. With so many characters in its arsenal, things get a little cluttered in the second act. But The Way, Way Back is ultimately exhilarating, and makes for a fantastic summer movie.