The Way Way Back (2013)
103 min., rated PG-13.
Coming-of-age stories, set during "the summer that changed everything," are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't stop screenwriting partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for their script of 2011's "The Descendants") from making "The Way Way Back" an entirely likable and satisfying crowd-pleaser. Marked as the co-writers' first time at the directing bat, this indie slice-of-life dramedy set during summer vacation might just be the sleeper hit of the summer. It may not break an inch of new ground, but it doesn't have to when the results are so wise, sweet-natured, and timelessly true.
14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is a sullen, introverted, unassuming wallflower experiencing some normal teenage angst. His divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), drags him along with her insensitive boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent's catty 16-year-old daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) for a summer at the beach on the New England coast. In an early telling moment of honest, economic characterization, Trent, who's behind the wheel as Pam and Steph are asleep in the car, asks Duncan, who's in the way, way back of the car, where he sees himself on a 1-10 scale. Duncan isn't sure, but Trent, trying to mean well, thinks of his girlfriend's son as a 3. Arriving at Trent's beach house, Pam becomes acquainted with his party-animal friends, couple Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), while Duncan sneaks out of the house on a pink girl's bike he finds in the garage and goes exploring. Soon, he finds an outlet in the town's rundown water park called Water Wizz and falls under the wing of ne'er-do-well manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who brings the kid into the park's family and allows Duncan to come out of his shell a bit. He even finds the guts to hang out with the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
For Faxon and Rash's directorial debut, the film is safe and sunny. Pure formula, to the point that it shares an amusement park setting, a summery feel, and a male virgin's point-of-view with 2009's "Adventureland," it hits most of the familiar beats at an amiably loose pace. Every bit of this is a sure thing, but every unsurprising observation and plot point is fresh enough and wrapped up less tidily than most; we're left more with hope than total closure by its simple but affecting final shot. The mainstream sensibility of "The Way Way Back" comes out in a throughline involving a race in a covered water slide that begins as comic hijinks and ends as a fun farewell, something that any kid Duncan's age might try one summer. Much more effective is when a certain character's infidelity is aired out at a beach party. While it's staged as something that only ever happens in the movies (every extra stops to watch the big scene), there's a tender, painful truth to how the emotions play out and how authentic they feel.
Duncan—and Liam James—is the film's heart. Looking like one face with Patrick Fugit and reminding one of Logan Lerman from last year's beloved "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," James is so naturally engaging and relatable in portraying Duncan's timid, awkward phase that, though he might be closed-off from his family, he immediately warms to the viewer from the first scene. Carell proves he can stretch his acting muscles and not always win over his audiences. As Trent, he plays the character as much as an unlikable, unsympathetic jerk without feeling like any less of a human being. Collette, reteaming with Carell as lovers instead of siblings in "Little Miss Sunshine," never has a misstep and is just as wonderful here. As Pam, she essays a divorced woman who's loving and accepting but not without a backbone.
All of the performances are effortlessly well-tuned by an exceptional ensemble, but Rockwell steals the entire film. As Water Fizz's jokey manager and underground mayor Owen, the actor is hilariously glib, loose, and charming. Owen might have a case of arrested development but he's really just a big kid who has no problem protecting his younger friends. The other prize-winner is Allison Janney. She's sinfully funny as Betty, the kind of busybodied, perpetually boozy neighbor who talks everyone's ear off and never thinks it's too early to have a cocktail. The boisterous character very easily could have drifted into caricature but never does under Janney's care and her contagious laugh. The always-appealing Robb, as Betty's daughter Susanna, could be any young boy's crush who's brighter and cooler than any popular mean girl. Maya Rudolph is her usual terrific self here, playing Caitlyn, Water Wizz's more responsible operator and Owen's sort-of girlfriend who has prolonged her employment there to give him a chance. The directors also give themselves supporting roles as goofy Water Wizz employees with their own little quirks.
With a film this winning in its mixture of humor, marshmallow-roasting nostalgia, and pathos, it's hard to quibble, even when a "water-gun fight" gets thrown in to take the place of the obligatory food fight. Something of a small miracle, "The Way Way Back" is such a refreshing, smartly enjoyable reprieve from the summer movie season's barrage of superhero fare and big-budget blockbusters that you feel blue when it must come to an end. Just when you thought they couldn't make movies like they used to, this summery little pleasantry gives one hope. It's like a ray of sunshine with a shade of wistfulness.
Grade: B +