Part coming-of-age comedy, part dysfunctional family drama, “The Way, Way Back” is remarkably engaging for a movie with so many one-dimensional characters. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, two-thirds of the Academy Award-winning team behind “The Descendants,” the film is similar in tone to that film but is even better because the actors make the most of the scant material they are given to work with.
In some respects, a couple of the actors are playing against type. Steve Carell, for example, is no longer playing the mopey sad-sack we have come to expect because of films like “Dan in Real Life” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” Here, he’s a jerk named Trent who is constantly belittling the movie’s coming-of-ager, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), the son of the woman (Toni Collette) he is dating. “The Way, Way Back” places the three of them, as well as Trent’s equally vain teenage daughter, in a summer house where some of them learn to grow and where they always seem to end every night over a bonfire with the neighbors.
Collette also plays against type, almost fading into the background in some instances, which is something this vibrant, witty actress rarely does. Allison Janney, on the other hand, totally plays up the character arc we’ve grown accustomed to over the last 10 years of her career. This time, she’s the oversexed, overconfident boozer who lives next door and always seems to drop in at the most inappropriate moment. The movie also makes swell use of Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph and even Faxon and Rash themselves, the latter of which are kooky employees at a cheesy water park that takes Duncan in when all his hope seems lost.
But the best character in “The Way, Way Back” is easily Sam Rockwell as Owen, the laid-back proprietor of said water park. Very much channelling Bill Murray’s character in “Meatballs” (something Rockwell has even admitted to in interviews), Rockwell found a way to give the casual Owen a unique spin that makes him stand out amid the more superficial characters the majority of the cast is forced to play.
I’m probably being more harsh on the movie than it deserves. I laughed, I empathized with young Duncan as he struggled to connect with the cute, older girl (AnnaSophia Robb) he had the hots for, I exited the theater feeling content. “The Way, Way Back” is being advertised, quite predictably I might add, as “from the studio that brought you ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Juno’.” But this time the comparisons feel germane. If you enjoyed those quirky comedies, chances are you’ll go for this one, too.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Rated PG-13 for language, drug use and sexual references. 103 minutes, 2013.
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Starring: Liam James, Steve Carell.
Read all of Jesse Hoheisel’s reviews at AFistfulofPopcorn.com.