The gang in "The Way, Way Back."
The Way Way Back
On a scale of one to 10, Steve Carell's jerk of a character rates his girlfriend's glum 14-year-old -- stuck in the way, way back of the vintage Buick station wagon -- a lowly three. Ranking much, much higher is Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's sweet and funny coming-of-age film, their directorial debut that makes a small splash within the sea of big summer blockbusters. The Oscar-winning co-writers of "The Descendants" have crafted a quirky little comedy that delivers life lessons in an endearing way.
The ensemble cast really sells each and every character of the East Coast beach community where Trent (Carell) has a vacation house. They look like real people, not Hollywood actors, of all shapes and beachwear. And although the actors look like they're having fun with their roles, they never allow their characters to become cartoonish.
Liam James perfectly plays Duncan, the awkward teen who thinks tagging along with his single mother (Toni Collette), her cocky boyfriend (Carell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin) will be anything but fun. He's right. Carell has transformed from a lovable 40-year-old virgin to a controlling 40-something, spouting off his rules and easily manipulating Duncan's mousy mother to cater to his needs. Duncan's loneliness is palpable, and you can feel his pain of being an outsider.
Expressing his feelings primarily through subtle facial expressions and body language, James maintains a dour demeanor until a magical moment. In the garage, Duncan finds a girl's bicycle -- pink with handlebar streamers and a basket -- and pedals off furiously, an exhilarating rush of freedom coaxing a smile from his pursed lips. It's a defining plot point in the narrative, as Duncan discovers the Water Wizz amusement park and its goofy, good-hearted employees who will become his surrogate family.
Sam Rockwell steals the show as Owen, the slacker manager of the park. He has a quick wit, droll sense of humor and the inclination to turn every situation into a joke -- except when it comes to Duncan. Owen immediately empathizes with the unhappy kid and knows exactly what to do to boost his self-esteem and give him a home away from home. Writer-directors Faxon and Rash, as well as Maya Rudolph, are such likeable Water Wizz characters, particularly in contrast to the adults (including Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry) behaving badly at the beach.
Allison Janney takes tremendous risks playing Trent's neighbor as a talkative lush. Her daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) shares Duncan's sense of loss over their broken homes and absent fathers, whereas her eye patch-wearing son adds to the wildly unpredictable aspects of the movie.
Familiar without veering into the formulaic, "The Way Way Back" has a generosity of spirit that reminds us what friendship and family truly mean.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language, brief drug material and thematic elements. One hour, 43 minutes.
- Susan Tavernetti