Whenever summer hits, it feels like the core of the film industry relies heavily on action-packed blockbusters such as White House Down and Pacific Rim to fill up theater seats. For those who crave a little nostalgia, an intelligent comedy, and a look inside dysfunctional families, The Way, Way Back—out in theaters now—reminisces on those awkward teen years, while utilizing a talented, star-studded cast. It recalls a similar plot to 2009’s Adventureland—a film about teens working at an amusement park—and although is it predictable at moments, it reels in more laughs against the backdrop of a family drama with some heart.
In the opening moments of The Way, Way Back, Duncan (played by Liam James of AMC’s The Killing) sits in the back of a station wagon as his mother’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell)—who is driving the car—prods him on what he would rate himself on a scale of one to ten, then reveals he thinks Duncan is a three. It’s cruel and it foreshadows Trent’s insensitive and douchebaggery nature which unfolds throughout the film. The rating scale seems like fictional dialogue, but it’s true to life as revealed by writer-and-director duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (of Oscar-winning screenplay fame for The Descendants).
“The very first scene in the movie is true, that horrible conversation, verbatim,” Rash (who also stars as Dean Pelton in NBC’s Community) told IFC in an interview, in regards to a real-life chat with his stepfather.
On a summer vacation in Wareham, Mass. (close to Cape Cod), 14-year-old Duncan joins Trent, his mother Pam (Toni Collette), and his self-absorbed sister (Zoe Levin), at a beach house in a town where adults acts like drunk college kids on spring break and the other teens are The Plastics in Mean Girls. Duncan is quiet and contemplative, however, his awkwardness is so extreme that it’s almost painful to watch–especially his long pauses during exchanges on weather with neighbor and love interest (AnnaSophia Robb of CW’s Carrie Diaries). Is he just that socially awkward or have we simply forgotten what it’s like to be a teen?
Luckily, viewers get a breather from Duncan’s social ineptitude as he gains some self-confidence when he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a light-hearted, cool-guy mentor (who is what we’d imagine an amusement park employee to be like if he grew up working the same gig) who runs the town’s water park, Water Wizz. Owen—along with his crew Roddy (Faxon), Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), and Lewis (Rash)—hires Duncan for odd jobs around the park, and spends time teasing him about girls and teaches him how to have a sense a humor. Duncan finally loosens up and gets a tan.
However, Duncan is constantly reminded by Trent’s unwelcoming presence—as a threat to his mother and his family. He’s not so much dangerous as just a bad guy for any woman to date. We’ve seen Collette work her magic in her chameleon-like acting skills (see United States of Tara) and get to see her channel some of her emotive states with Pam in The Way, Way Back. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t allow for her character to round out more than a woman in denial of a bad relationship.
Although it’s evident that Carell portrays his role with striking precision, so much so that viewers cringe by his very voice and complaints by the end, the show-stealer is Rockwell. He is given the wittiest lines in the film, and he delivers them with charming sarcasm. In one scene, Trent sees Duncan sulking on a chair at Water Wizz. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Trent tells Duncan. “I’m getting complaints. You’re having too much fun. It’s making everyone uncomfortable.”
It’s wisecrack dialogue like this that keeps the pace of the film upbeat and a joy to watch. The narrative takes some unsurprising dramatic turns, in the way that a coming-of-age storyline is ought to change a boy’s perspective on life, and the popular girl turns out to not be as vapid as her cohorts (suddenly sparring interest in the nerdy protagonist). Regardless, The Way, Way Back is worth watching, backed by a talented cast, humorous script, and tender look at the perennially difficult time period of growing up.