The “coming of age” movie has been done to death. This summer there have been at least two of note.. “The Spectacular Now” and “The Way Way Back.” In an effort to find a new way to tell the story filmmakers have gone to extremes of outrageousness of sex or violence or sexy violence or violent sexiness. Sometimes, it is best to just find a good story, a great cast and just let them do what they do best. That is the category where you will find “The Way Way Back”.
Liam James (“The Killing”) is Duncan. He’s about 14 and his Mom, Toni Collette is dating Steve Carell. They travel to Carell’s beach house for the summer with his self-involved daughter, trying to make the family dynamic work. One problem. Carell is just a jerk. He is demeaning to Duncan telling him he’s a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. He bosses Duncan around and talks to him like he’s about 5-years old. Duncan is introverted and simply takes it or just runs away and hides. Carell, who usually plays the “nice guy”, really sells it. You find yourself really hating him as the movie goes along.
This is looking like a pretty awful summer until Duncan finds a bike and pedals to the local water park which is managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell). Rockwell’s Owen is a modern version of Bill Murray’s Tripper from “Meatballs”. He’s an adult in age only, is quick with a wisecrack or a joke and seems to just want to exist as the manager of a water park. Duncan gets a job at Water Whizz (yeah, they actually named it that), and seems to be finding himself, breaking out of his shell and learning how to check out girls butts on the water slide (not an unimportant skill to a 14-year old or someone with the emotional maturity of a 14-year old). Rockwell is absolutely great. He is all smirks, one liners. But his character, unlike Murray’s, actually exhibits a modicum of growth. He truly becomes Duncan’s role model.
Back at Carell’s house, he is introducing Collette to his circle of summer friends. The outrageously funny Allison Janney, the jealous party girl Amanda Peet and her husband Rob Corddry who doesn’t seem to have a clue that she’ll screw anything that moves. Janney is hysterical. Her character, Betty is the mother of two, but she seems to be the ultimate party girl. The adult behavior in this movie is best described by her daughter (AnnaSophia Robb): The grown up version of spring break.
There are the predictable reveals about Carell’s lecherousness and a cute summer romance. But James wonderful performance makes you care about Duncan. You don’t feel like he’s a loser. You feel like he’s the only adult in this whole mess of immaturity. He just needs to find someone to bring him out of his shell. The movie is touching and funny. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote and directed the film and hit all the notes perfectly. It could have been sentimental drivel, but the smart dialogue and the wonderful performances by everyone make “The Way Way Back” a summer movie not to be missed. — Alan Yudman