Review: The Way, Way Back


The Way, Way Back

I was a bit skeptical of The Way, Way Back when, a few days before the movie's press screening, I sat in a beach-themed Austin bar where the waitstaff wore The Way, Way Back T-shirts and handed out swag to the mostly indifferent customers. Great films are seldom promoted with cheap sunglasses.

Fortunately, The Way, Way Back is better -- if not way, way better -- than its marketing campaign. Not a great film, but a likeable if forgettable summer comedy with a terrific cast and some very funny gags.

At the center of The Way, Way Back is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a shy and awkward teen whose mother, Pam (Toni Collette), drags him kicking and screaming on an extended summer trip to the Massachusetts coast. Joining them are Pam's kind-of-a-jerk boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his snotty teen-queen daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin).

When they arrive at the quaint beach town, Duncan is bored immediately and feels alienated from his mom and Trent. Fortunately, a new friend ends his boredom: Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a brainy, stunning older woman of 16 or so who is staying next door with her hilariously blunt mother, Betty (Allison Janney), a friend of Duncan's mother. The two teens share a common bond: their families are unbearable.

Susanna is a great excuse for Duncan to avoid his family, but he finds an even better one: an unlikely friendship with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the town's Water Wizz water park. Sensing that Duncan is a lonely kid looking for a place to belong, Owen hires him to work at the park. Duncan is so alienated from his family that he doesn't even tell them he's found a job. Instead, he pretends to be just hanging around town all day while Pam and Trent are absorbed in their own summer fun. They wouldn't approve of all the water park hijinks (bikinis and water slides figure prominently), anyway.

If this setup sounds familiar, it's because The Way, Way Back is mostly a standard-issue summer vacation/coming of age movie, a story of a teenage outcast trying to find his way while the adults lose theirs. In this case, the familiar story isn't really a bad thing; The Way, Way Back hangs enough genuinely funny jokes on its predictable framework to hold our interest. It's nothing new, but it's sufficiently charming to feel fresher than it is.

The film's charm lies in its appealing characters, all well played by a cast with a surprising amount of artsy credibility for a film of this genre. James is perfectly awkward as Duncan, broadcasting the sort of low self-esteem that drives other kids to mock him. Any teen (or former teen) who retreats into a lonely, nerdy, self-absorbed world will find Duncan completely relatable. James is especially effective in Duncan's early scenes with Susanna, who obviously terrifies him with her confidence and beauty.

Rockwell is a hoot as the ever-wisecracking Owen. Although he's a stock summer comedy character -- the fast-talking adult male prankster whom all the kids adore -- Rockwell plays him with unusual depth. Beneath all the bravado and clowning is a clearly frustrated man who'd rather not be managing a water park. (In a minor role, Maya Rudolph draws out Owen's conflicted side as his co-worker and sometime girlfriend, Caitlin.)

The film's funniest character is the supremely inappropriate Betty, a mom with a mean streak who does her best to embarrass her kids and make everyone cringe with her nosy questions and sexual frankness. Janney plays her with perfect comic timing and rapid-fire rudeness.

Why isn't The Way, Way Back a great film? For all its comic strengths, it's too safe and derivative to be anything beyond a pleasant diversion from the summer heat. It's mostly gritless and superficial, and doesn't explore its darker themes (family dysfunction, career frustration and teenage alienation) with much insight. And while Collette gives her usual competent performance as a woman living a life of denial, her part is too underwritten to fully explain Pam's tense relationships with, well, everyone, which are central to the film's premise.

Still, The Way, Way Back mostly achieves its limited goal: It's a smartly funny bit of fun-in-the-sun fluff, with a bit more gravitas (if not nearly enough) than most summer comedies. I wouldn't be embarrassed to wear a Water Wizz promotional T-shirt.