For a lot of people, summer vacations are less a relief and more a scenic version of a prison sentence. Duncan (Liam James) is an introverted lad who’s still smarting from his parents’ divorce. For his silent gloom, he has to travel with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) to an oceanside town where he knows no one and has little motivation to make friends.
Pam and Trent’s pals at the beach house have little to offer the lonely teen. Betty (Allison Janney) is a blunt, unrepentant alcoholic who’s a riot to listen to and would embarrass anyone who knew her in real life.
Because there are a lot of memorable characters like Betty in The Way, Way Back, Duncan’s suffering and eventual triumph become a viewer’s delight. First-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (they co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne) have a knack for creating eccentric characters that grow on an audience. Their storytelling also has an inviting warmth that most tourist spots would envy.
If Duncan has to endure Trent’s smug, condescending treatment, he also meets a crass water park employee named Owen (Sam Rockwell) who tosses lame wisecracks and acts even more immature than Duncan.
Imagine Duncan’s surprise when he discovers that Owen owns the establishment and is as kind-hearted as he is corny. Rockwell has made a career out of playing oddballs like Owen, but The Way, Way Back also allows him to play the human being under the clownish facade. As a result, it’s easy to see why he and Duncan become friends and why his strait-laced girlfriend Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) has stayed with him for so long.
Despite his quiet manner, Duncan also makes a favorable impression on Betty’s frustrated daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). This is especially impressive when one considers that the only words emerging from his mouth are the lyrics to the songs on his MP3 player that he sings when he thinks no one else is around. Robb manages the tricky feat of playing a wise-beyond-her-years teen without reducing the role to a caricature.
At the film’s center, James effortlessly cracks Duncan’s rigid exterior. It’s a pleasure watching the lad blossom, even if his development is sometimes painful. Considering the dysfunctional elders around him, Duncan’s blunders seem benign compared to what the grown-ups are doing.
Carell, who usually plays well-meaning dolts, is totally convincing as a fellow whose integrity could never hope to back up the sizable ego he has acquired. Trent is a toxic fellow whose assured manner hides a careless nature and a disregard for the well-being of others. It’s creepy to think of Michael Scott from The Office having a mean streak.
Carell’s Trent keeps The Way, Way Back from becoming more than a comic romp with some unusual characters. There’s a dramatic weight that makes the laughs seem more honest. In the end, The Way, Way Back becomes more satisfying than a few days away from home.
The Way, Way Back
Cast: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, River Alexander, Zoe Levin
Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material
Running time: 103 minutes