Despite its heavily recycled plotline and predictable progression, “The Way Way Back” presents its story with consistent heart, infused with a wealth of eccentric characters that ensures the poignancy is perpetually alternated with laughs. The focus is disjointed at times, often offering excess detail on points unnecessary to the primary tale, yet the moments of dismal duress and uplifting triumph remain realistic and impactful due to deftly written interactions and competent acting. Just because this type of story has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t engage, entertain, and surprise. “The Way Way Back” accomplishes two out of the three with ease.
When fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is forced to spend the summer at his mother’s boyfriend’s beach house, it seems as if he’s destined for misery. An awkward teen dismissed by the adults and even his own peers, Duncan is unable to fit in. But all that changes when he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the cocky, carefree manager of the Water Wizz water park. Securing a position there, Duncan begins to gain confidence and finally obtains contentment in both his new job and the attention from his neighbor’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). When his mother’s (Toni Collette) deteriorating relationship with her boyfriend (Steve Carell) begins to threaten their vacation, Duncan must find a way to hang on to his newfound happiness.
Featuring an introverted, reclusive, friendless, painfully shy, awkward teenager amidst negative influences, budding sexuality, outgoing girls-next-door, and impossibly down-to-earth, levelheaded mentors has become somewhat of a routine formula for coming-of-age movies. Handling family drama through the quirky lens of heavy sarcasm, constant humiliation, youthful romance, and a dab of pitch-black humor is nearly a genre of its own. A crippling lack of confidence and general teen angst is expectedly remedied by the therapeutic exchanges of a similarly enfeebled confidant (of the opposite sex, who is naturally improbably attractive); along with a guiding force of reason – in this case, Rockwell’s Owen, who magically possesses all the qualities of an experienced, admirable rebel.
In place of a refreshingly unprocessed assortment of characters is a script enriched with creative dialogue and hilariously talkative commentary – the kind resourceful enough to haze nearly every other filmmaking facet. Rockwell steals the show, followed by Allison Janney’s constantly carousing neighbor – and even wacky bit parts by directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon improve the revelries. Carell drags the cast down by playing against type, as a mean-spirited two-timer continually serving up hypocritical gnomes, paired with comedian Rob Corddry doing little to increase funniness. Nonetheless, the well-intentioned selections will likely spark curiosity from fans. Carell just doesn’t feel natural in a dislikeable role – it takes entirely too much to despise someone so popularized by previous comedic projects, especially when his range isn’t sufficient to convince of genuine malignancy. The ideas of deteriorating upbringings, separated parents, neglect, and adults partying (in an attempt to clutch at a fleeting Neverland) while adolescents brood, provide bases for challenging distressing encounters. But they fail to offer resolution or satisfaction beyond the brief win of an inconsequential waterpark stunt (designed to substitute for a major climactic confrontation).
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)