*** out of ****
The Way Way Back is a coming-of-age dramedy of the kind that is almost too familiar, too formulaic and too predictable. While these things can normally constitute a mundane movie experience, it is spared such a fate by containing some rather good dialogue and a solid cast that bring the movie to life and give it some serious emotional weight.
Our lead character is fourteen-year-old Duncan, played with convincing insecure Bud Cort-like shyness by Liam James. Duncan has been reluctantly dragged on a trip to a beach house on the Atlantic Coast with his mother and her buffoon of a boyfriend, Trent, played with a deliberately non-comic performance by Steve Carell.
I guess I should point out that once we are introduced to Trent’s vacation friends, we see a lot of normally funny actors such as Amanda Peet, Allison Janney and Rob Corddry follow Carell’s lead in behaving immaturely while resisting the temptation to go for easy laughs. These people are hypocritical drunks whose phony joy only contributes to Duncan’s misery and a sense of no place in life.
His mother, played by the great Toni Collette, is sympathetic and clearly cares about her son but is preoccupied in trying to make her new relationship work. Duncan feels abandoned by her and is regularly questioned by Trent who has very uncreative notions as to what Duncan needs to come out of his shell.
While socially inept around people his own age in the area, including a pretty girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) who may share his pain, Duncan sets out to seek daily refuge from the unending party at the house. Eventually, he discovers a water park, where he befriends a reckless park manager named Owen, who is a motivational ball of brilliant sarcasm played by Sam Rockwell. This character is almost nothing more than an archetype, but Rockwell sure does make him fun!
At this point, the film’s writer/director team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also play waterpark employees) suddenly turn what feels similar to their 2011 screenplay to The Descendants into something resembling the summer camp movie Meatballs with Rockwell as the Bill Murray character. He’s there give the insecure kid a sense of confidence and direction that the selfish unperceptive Trent could never inspire.
The contrast between these two environments continues through the rest of the movie and while I find it strange, I think it actually works. It’s like watching a character realize which movie he’d rather be in.