Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
Duncan (Liam James), an introverted and sensitive 14-year-old boy, is forced to spend the summer at a beach house with his Mom (Toni Collette), her abrasive new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Finding his loneliness and Trent’s attempts at bonding to be unbearable, Duncan wanders off one day looking for a place to while away his days when he finds an oasis: the Water Wizz water park.
The unique collection of characters at the water park see Duncan as a kindred spirit and he is almost immediately welcomed into the fold and given a job at the park for the summer. The park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes Duncan under his wing and slowly but surely is able to draw him out of his shell and give him a chance to find his confidence. But even the sanctuary of the water park isn’t enough to shield Duncan from the unraveling of his family life, and sooner than later he will have to deal with his mom and Trent.
The Way Way Back manages to shift from sweet to sad to funny without ever feeling abrupt. In a cast that is loaded from back to front with talent, Rockwell, James and Allison Janney all take turns owning this film and putting their stamp on it. In a strong supporting role AnnaSophia Robb provides extra depth to a part that may have come off as broody and one-note in the hands of a lesser actress and Jim Rash, aside from co-writing and co-directing this film, plays a marvelously dry, sad sack who constantly vows to leave Water Wizz in his rearview mirror.
I wish that the film had let us enjoy Duncan’s triumphs a little bit more because that is when The Way Way Back is at it’s most enjoyable. Carell’s Trent is so cutting and condescending that you need to linger longer on Duncan’s successes because you don’t want the audience to pity him. I also wish that they hadn’t made Collette’s Pam such a mushy pushover. I don’t know if it is how she was written or how she was portrayed, but Pam was unlikeable and even her small redemption at the end of the film does little to make up for the all the abuse of both her son and herself that she tolerates. The Way Way Back has a lot going for it and it is a good palate cleanser for those who may be tired of superheroes and explosions and want to see a real human story. B
I can't say enough good things about the acting in this film. All of the characters felt multi-dimensial and real. Allison Janney was delightful as the boozy, gossip from next door, and Liam James does a masterful job making Duncan feel like an awkward teenager without making him pitiful. I adored Sam Rockwell in this film and wish that there were Water Wizz's all over the country that had managers that could see the potential in a kid and give them a place to grow.
As a coming of age tale, I would have liked Duncan to have grown even more, but the movie does leave us hopeful that this unforgettable summer will be just enough to help him bridge his transition through high school. Mud is my favorite movie of the year, and The Way Way Back attempts to have as much resonance, but it is not quite as successful. The movie is solid and deserves more recognition amidst the summer blockbusters. I think this will be a movie I return to again and again, because it works on so many levels. B+