Starring Liam James, Toni Collette, and Steve Carell. Rating not available.
Even after seeing The Way, Way Back, I still don’t get the title, aside from the image of mopey, 14-year-old Duncan (Canada’s likable Liam James) sitting in the reverse-facing seat of a station wagon at the film’s start and finish. But I am sure that its coming-of-age trajectory is as old as storytelling itself—or at least since Jesse Eisenberg got lost in Adventureland.
Screenwriters and first-time codirectors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have a sure grasp of key moments that make an adolescent feel either isolated or included. And they were able to draw on a cast that made the best of their overly familiar material, including Toni Collette as Duncan’s overwhelmed single mother and Steve Carell as her domineering new boyfriend whose seaside-resort home occasions the amusing tale’s summer-vacation theme.
Allison Janney also excels as the Carell character’s loudmouthed, perpetually tipsy neighbour whose daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) ignores snotty friends to show an interest in Duncan. Best of all is Sam Rockwell as Owen, the cigar-chomping, live-for-the-moment manager of a funky kid-zone water park. To escape psychological bullying at home, Duncan grabs a temp job at the theme park, which offers an offbeat father figure and an ad-hoc family, with goodhearted employees played by filmmakers Faxon and Rash plus a very pregnant Maya Rudolph.
The film’s characters are very pleasantly drawn, but aside from Rockwell’s fully inhabited beach bum, they are too generic to make deep impressions. The neighbour girl is seen reading a book once—thereby establishing her as a potentially dangerous intellectual—but, otherwise, no one offers any interests, skills, goals, or personal quirks beyond the obvious movie shticks. Speaking of which, how do Faxon and Rash justify four scenes built around white people dancing funny? That joke goes back pretty far too—and should stay there.