An awkward teen finds a surrogate father and confidence at a run-down water park
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2013
Though it takes place in what looks like the present — the familiar now of earbuds and smartphones — "The Way, Way Back," a summertime coming-of-age tale written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is infused with nostalgia. The movie's title seems to refer to the rear-facing third seat of the massive old station wagon where we first encounter its hero, a glum 14-year-old boy named Duncan (Liam James). But it also describes a hazy, bittersweet mood of recollection that hovers around the action like July humidity.
In addition to that vintage car, there is a battered water park and an antique Pac-Man machine, at the controls of which Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who will become his mentor and confidant. Owen, who manages the park, is the more sympathetic of the two surrogate fathers who dominate Duncan's days and fight, implicitly, for his young soul. The bad dad is Trent (Steve Carell), the owner of the station wagon and the rambling beach house where Duncan and his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), Trent's girlfriend, are spending their vacation.
|‘THE WAY, WAY BACK’
Opens today at Kahala 8
Part of the charm of beach towns is that they change relatively slowly, so it is easy enough, as I suspect the filmmakers have done, to peel back the years and find your own experiences in Duncan's. "The Way, Way Back" has the charm of timelessness but also more than a touch of triteness. Its situations and feelings seem drawn more from available, sentimental ideas about adolescence than from the perceptions of any particular adolescent.
James does a good job of tracing Duncan's evolution from a silent, awkward, seething boy into a more confident version of himself, and the older actors provide a vivid omnibus of the varieties of adult awfulness. We know from the start that Trent is a bit of a jerk because of the way he treats Duncan, calling him "buddy" and subjecting the boy to the kind of humiliations that a certain kind of failed man thinks will build character. Just how much of a jerk Trent is will emerge later, largely at the expense of Pam, who is too timid and too desperately attached to her lover to stand up for her son.
There are also Betty, a boozy neighbor (Allison Janney, reliably finding soul and nuance in a broad, cartoonish supporting role), and Kip and Joan, a fun-loving couple (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) who seem to have wandered in from the discarded draft of a middle-period John Updike novel. Duncan is also oppressed by a passel of mean girls led by Trent's daughter. Luckily there is an unused bicycle to carry him to Water Wizz, where he is buoyed by Owen's peppery sarcasm and the friendly attention of some of the other workers (among them Maya Rudolph and the film's directing team).
The romantic possibilities of the coming-of-age summer are represented by Betty's daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who is bookish and thoughtful and a little older than Duncan, and therefore perfect first-kiss material.
Writers Rash and Faxon, Oscar winners (with Alexander Payne) for their "Descendants" screenplay, who are making their directing debut, approach Duncan's story with gentle good humor, underplaying both comic moments and emotional explosions. While this restraint makes "The Way, Way Back" pleasantly watchable, it also makes it feel small and anecdotal, a modest variation on something you've seen before.
Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times