4.5 / 5
The Way, Way Back was written by the same two guys who wrote the masterful screenplay for Alexander Payne's The Descendants, and this time they're sharing the director's seat, too. The Way, Way Back shares with The Descendants a full, perplexed and ultimately happy appreciation for the quirks and difficulties of life without every resorting to being quirky the way that Little Miss Sunshine was.
Although it's not set in Hawaii, The Way, Way Back also recalls The Descendants in the way water proves vital to the plot and to the enjoyment of the movie. You can almost smell the over-chlorinated water that pours down the tall, twisty slides of the Water Wizz theme park, and you certainly understand what makes 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) want to spend so much time there.
Everything about Water Wizz has the kind of easygoing, sunny charm that Duncan's life is missing. To say this kid is at an awkward stage is putting it mildly. From his mother's mean-spirited boyfriend (Steve Carell), to the younger kid with the lazy eye that decides to latch on to him, to his sagging Toughskin jeans, absolutely nothing about his life fit.
His equally confused mom (Toni Collette) is still reeling from divorce, and she's taken to the smarmy Trent because -- well, even she's not sure about that one. But as a mixed family (his sullen daughter comes along), they're going to spend the summer at Trent's slightly rundown Cape Cod beach house.
Whether he likes it or not, Duncan is going to have to put up with pop-in visits from the brash, boozy neighbor (Allison Janney) and her kids -- including the gorgeous Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who unexpectedly takes a liking to this dorky kid.
Duncan can't imagine any worse way to spend a summer than surrounded by adults on a grown-up version of spring break, and just when he figures there's no way to escape, he runs into Owen (Sam Rockwell), Water Wizz's stuck-in-adolescence manager, who recognizes in the kid a meek desperation. Duncan takes the job on the sly, never revealing it to his preoccupied mother or Trent.
At Water Wizz, Duncan discovers he's got worth, people might actually like him, and it's just possible he can make a contribution, even if it's to a rundown roadside attraction.
The Way, Way Back -- which is named after the backward-facing far seat in a station wagon -- isn't quite as straightforward as a plot summary makes it sound, nor is it peopled with loopy, zany caricatures. From the start, the acting is what really distinguishes the movie; Janney's first appearance as the next-door neighbor may be one of the most memorable entrances of the past decade, and James is a wonderfully natural actor, unafraid to let his own actual pre-teen awkwardness shine through.
Much has been written about how Carell goes against type as the "villain" of the movie, a despicable lout who takes pleasure in intimidating his young charge. But Carell and Sam Rockwell as Owen are the mirror opposites of the father figure Duncan is missing, and I liked the way the movie's screenplay made Carell's browbeating frequently understandable, and Owen's juvenile behavior frequently pathetic. Neither man is Duncan's savior, because only Duncan can ever be that for himself.
The Way, Way Back puts a breezy, easy sheen on a dark, difficult story, and lets every character (except, perhaps, Carell's -- deservingly) discover some truths about themselves during the summer.
Yet, it avoids the kind of formulaic, borderline silly characters that inhabited Little Miss Sunshine and Juno (the studio's marketing takes pains to refer to those films), the randy salaciousness of Wet Hot American Summer and the nostalgia-for-its-own-sake indulgence of Adventureland.
The Way, Way Back is a genuinely heartfelt, pitch-perfect comedy that may not be filled with earthshaking revelation, but is content to let us see the messy, sometimes unsatisfying way life happens through the eyes of someone experiencing that kind of confusing heartbreak for the first time, but certainly not the last.
Any movie that can engender such hearty laughter to momentarily drown out the dialogue and, convincingly, wring misty tears of recognition is something special -- and The Way, Way Back is special, indeed.
Viewed July 14, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood