NOTE: This is a slightly edited reprint of my earlier review from the Sundance Film Festival.
The opening moments of The Way, Way Back begin in unexpected fashion, as an unshaven and gruff Steve Carell crushes a young boy’s spirit while on a long drive. Carell plays Trent, the new boyfriend to the mother of 14-year old Duncan (Liam James), and he asks the boy how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Duncan gives an awkward reply of ‘6’ before Trent informs him he’s actually a ‘3’. That scene, based on a real event in the life of co-writer/co-director Jim Rash, sets a harsh stage for what is ultimately a funny and sweet coming-of-age tale.
Rash and Nat Faxon, both solid comedic actors and members of the influential troupe known as The Groundlings, took home the Best Adapted Screenplay award along with Alexander Payne for The Descendants. While Payne received the bulk of the attention, The Way, Way Back proves that the duo’s win was no fluke. In their directorial debut, they’ve pulled deeply from their own personal experiences to make a familiar story feel special.
Already quiet and introverted, Duncan goes even deeper into his shell thanks to Trent’s needling. Duncan’s mother, Pam (Toni Collette), isn’t willing to intervene for fear of losing Trent, who she’s been dating for a year after a nasty divorce. The title refers to the furthest rear seat in a station wagon, where we often find Duncan sitting to just get away from everyone else.
On a summer beach trip with Trent’s “mean girl’ daughter (Zoe Lavin) in tow, Duncan readies himself for a terrible stay. The parents split off and begin having their own adult fun with neighbors Betty (Allison Janney), Kip (Rob Corddry), and Joan (Amanda Peet). Betty, an alcoholic human tornado, is arguably the film’s most hilarious character, who runs off at the mouth without regard to decency or modesty. She bluntly mocks her cross-eyed son while also worrying about his ability to make friends, and has other issues finding common ground with her rebellious daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
It’s a nostalgic piece in the Adventureland mold, and the comparisons continue with the vintage rock soundtrack, along with the introduction of theme park Water Wizz. It’s here that Duncan meets Owen(Sam Rockwell), the lazy and immature goof who runs the park with his staff, led by his responsible manager Caitlin(Maya Rudolph) and fellow eccentrics Lewis and Roddy(Faxon and Rash themselves). Owen takes Duncan under his wing, building the boy’s confidence by giving him a menial job and getting him to let his guard down. It isn’t long before Duncan is breakdancing to crowds, sharing kisses with Susanna, and learning to stand up to Trent’s harsh criticism.
Between Janney and Rockwell there are plenty of laughs to be found, which is balanced out by the surprisingly dark turn by Carell. It’s weird to see him so cruel, and initially it takes some getting used to. Rockwell is terrific, though, in a role that requires him to be more than just comedic relief. He shares more than a few tender moments with Rudolph and James.
While not as polished as The Descendants, The Way, Way Back is a real crowd-pleasing charmer that breaks free of its familiar trappings with consistent humor and personal touches.