Actors-turned-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) turn directors as well with The Way, Way Back, a pleasantly shambling slice of summer nostalgia tied to a coming-of-age story. No, it isn’t a great movie, and a lot of its charm rests squarely on the presence of Sam Rockwell in the cast. (Indeed, Messrs. Faxon and Rash ought to be sending Rockwell flowers and chocolates — the big box — so essential is he to making their movie work.) All in all, The Way, Way Back (its title referring to both nostalgia and those rear-facing seats that used to be in the backs of station wagons) offers little that’s terribly new. It certainly hasn’t much relation to Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Juno (2007), despite the poster claiming it’s “from the studio that brought you” those films (not that any single studio made all three). But the film does what it does very well indeed, and provides a much-needed respite from overbearingly big summer movies. Think of it as a soothing breeze in the midst of a lot of blustering gales.
The film centers on 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, 2012) who finds himself sentenced to spending the summer at the beach with his self-absorbed, desperate mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her irredeemable swine of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell playing against type). He’s miserable, which is understandable, but that’s where the movie stumbles at first. The problem is that Duncan acts so sullen and miserable that it takes a while to sympathize. The presence of Allison Janney as a boozy, loudmouthed neighbor helps, but it’s not until the movie gets to Duncan’s discovery of the local theme park, Water Wizz, that the film springs to life. The park is lorded over by Owen (Rockwell), a good-natured, fast-talking slacker who takes a liking to the awkward Duncan and even gives him a job. Water Wizz itself is a slightly rundown little Neverland populated by likable folks without much ambition. Oh, sure, one of them, Lewis (played by co-director Rash), is intent on getting on with his life — but, for years, he’s been saying that. And Owen’s quasi-girlfriend Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) at least has a vague sense of responsibility.
Not a great deal happens that is likely to surprise you, and the whole finding-yourself-while-working-at-an-amusement-park idea is likely to draw comparisons to Adventureland (2009). But in some cases — and this is one of them — well-crafted familiarity and empathetically drawn characters ace originality. What makes The Way, Way Back work — besides its warmly depicted nostalgia for what summer should feel like — is that nearly every character is more complex than you’d expect.
Duncan’s mother, for instance, despite her self-involvement, is trying to shield her son from a painful truth. Almost no one is quite what they seem. Even Owen is much more aware of his own shortcomings — and his feelings for Caitlin — than he lets on. This kind of unexpected attention to character imbues the film with a depth that makes its amusing charms more than just another coming-of-age movie. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas