It’s appropriate that The Way Way Back sees its theatrical release over July Fourth weekend in the US. Though the movie isn’t set over that holiday in particular, it evokes those feelings generated by warm nights and aimless days that adolescents so enjoy during the summer, feelings that adults eventually transfer to their long weekends, still in search of escape.
That seems be the case for Pam (Toni Collette) and Trent (Steve Carell), a couple visiting his beach house for the summer. When they arrive with their respective teenage children from previous marriages, Duncan (Liam James) and Steph (Zoe Levin), the blended sorta family is greeted loudly by next-door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), and soon joined by Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). The adults giggle, flirt, and dance, while their kids look on mortified. As Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) puts it: “It’s like spring break for adults.”
Most mortified is 14-year-old Duncan: shy, withdrawn, and wary of his potential stepfather Trent, who opens the movie during the long drive to the shore by asking Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to 10. When Danny demurs, then makes up a number just to end the impromptu test, Trent comes up with his own evaluation, naming the kid a “three” who should work on getting that number up. Pam — who sleeps through this brutal exchange — is more understanding of her son’s awkwardness, but she never quite stands up to Trent’s low-key bullying, grateful for the attention he gives her.
With Carell and Collette sharing the screen again opposite another angsty kid, The Way Way Back somewhat resembles Little Miss Sunshine, with Carell playing Greg Kinnear’s part of a self-conscious jerk (the movies also share a studio, Fox Searchlight, trumpeting this dubious connection in the new film’s ad campaign). The filmmakers, writing-directing team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, don’t use Trent for easy satire, the way Little Miss Sunshine targeted its self-help-obsessed strivers, and Carell proves himself capable of work beyond the uncomfortable sad sacks he tends to play in his less broad comedies.
To elude Trent’s condescension and Steph’s eye rolls, Duncan spends time at a local water park, where the laid-back, irreverent manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes a liking to him, eventually giving him a job, and some self-confidence. Here an already crowded movie introduces even more characters — Owen’s dissatisfied second-in-command Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) and an assortment of misfit park employees — and The Way Way Back starts to lose focus. It’s sort of about Duncan’s relationship with his mom; it’s sort of about him overcoming Trent’s cruelty and offensiveness; it’s sort of about adults behaving like teenagers; and it’s sort of about first jobs and a tentative summer romance. All of these threads are promising, but most of them don’t fully deliver.
One reason may be Duncan’s realistic recessiveness. James, with his arms scrunched and stiff at his sides, has the posture of a graceless adolescent down pat, and he plays a sweet, immediately likable kid. But it’s hard to learn much more about him when the movie keeps crowding him with so many older pros, particularly Rockwell, who doesn’t steal their scenes together so much as gently carry them away. Rockwell has so often made his characters funny through the twitchy agility of his performance style that it’s disorienting, at first, to see him playing a guy who cracks self-conscious jokes (“bits,” he calls them, in the parlance of a stand-up comic). He brings real warmth and energy to the part, encouraging the audience to like Duncan a bit more because Owen takes to him so easily.
Owen’s puckish, welcoming sense of humor is surely based in the script by Rash and Faxon, also cowriters of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Both have worked extensively in sitcoms and played bit parts in other big-screen comedies, and they share an improv background. As directors, they show good instincts for jokes, but not always staging: sometimes, for the sake of plot convenience, Duncan secretly sees or overhears things while standing in plain view a few feet away from whomever he’s spying on — a minor quibble that nonetheless violates the movie’s attempts to remain grounded in a recognizable experience, however nostalgically recalled. (It also serves to underline Trent’s villainy, which makes him decreasingly interesting.)
In its humanistic aims, The Way Way Back resembles the coming-of-age comedy Adventureland (2009). Way Back evokes that film’s ’80s setting, even though it technically takes place sometime around now, by cramming in all kinds of ’80s signifiers: Trent drives a souped-up wood-paneled station wagon, Duncan listens to REO Speedwagon on his iPod (Susanna for some reason recognizes the song), and whenever the kids disappear for hours on end, the adults chastise them for not leaving notes (instead of, say, picking up their cell phones).
Even when Owen offers a jokey explanation of another faux-period detail, the water park’s retro-’80s feel (he claims that its owner declared that it would never be updated and remain a monument to its time), the movie doesn’t even try to represent the present. This even though would seem more timeless if it weren’t so self-conscious about its ’80s-ness, and if it didn’t make its moral points seem so easy.