If there’s one problem with The Way, Way Back, it’s that it takes about twenty minutes to find its groove. In that span of time, we’re kept in the company of unpalatable characters ranging from mostly terrible adults to mostly petulant teens, while our anchor in the setting, the painfully awkward protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), remains staunchly introverted and passive toward the world around him. We should feel sorry for the kid right away, of course, except that he does nothing but mope and squint through the torment of being on summer vacation in Marshfield, MA with his mom, Pam, (Toni Colette) and her obnoxious boyfriend, Trent, (Steve Carell); he’s helpless, and as the film goes on to show us, that’s mostly by choice.
So sympathizing with Duncan winds up being a frustrating process, but after the film’s first quarter goes by (peppered, thankfully, by Allison Janney doing what Allison Janney does), something magical happens: The Way, Way Back reveals that Duncan’s just as disgusted with Trent, his mom, and everyone else as we are. He’s such a blank slate to start with that it’s impossible to tell how he feels, but the movie- written and directed by The Descendants scribes Jim Rash and Nat Faxon- coaxes his emotion out of him, and when it does, we like what we see. He’s a good kid. He’s also just hopelessly self-defeating, and that’s not always pleasant to be around.
But it’s hard to blame him, and it becomes harder still as the story progresses and the characters reveal more about themselves. Typically cast as a jerk with a heart of gold, Carell here has the opportunity to just play the first half of that equation and goes full-bore grotesque, chipping away at Duncan’s self esteem with every slight and every falsehood. Combine Trent’s douchebaggery with Pam’s own nonresistance, and it’s easy to see why Duncan keeps to himself- and why he eventually adopts a local water park as his safe haven from his imitation family.
The Way, Way Back picks up steam before Water Wizz comes into the picture, but nobody has ever said that Sam Rockwell doesn’t add spice to the films he appears in. Rockwell plays the park’s owner, but his primary function is to serve as Duncan’s wise, wily mentor; he’s full of sage advice and wacky stories, both of which he dispenses in his trademark earnest, devil-may-care style. He’s the inciting force in Duncan’s life, and through their relationship, the boy begins to grow into a man, standing up for himself, his mother, and his life. The transformation is pretty miraculous in consideration of how dour and disaffected James plays his character throughout most of the film, and in fact he’s so good at selling the change that he winds up casting a whole new light over the rest of the narrative.
In between Duncan’s transition from boyhood to manhood lies one of the year’s more successful comedies, and if The Way, Way Back should be good at anything, it’s making audiences laugh. Faxon and Rash- who both make the most of their supporting roles here as park employees- brought a wry sense of humor to their screenplay for The Descendants, and Rash continues to be the best thing about NBC’s Community. Of course their co-directorial effort ends up being very, very funny in very, very different ways, and of course they manage to effortlessly synthesize the film’s punchlines with the natural warmth and emotion of its character arcs. Do them both a favor, though, and try not to mistake their work as nothing more than an Adventureland riff; rough set-up aside, The Way, Way Back is its own beast with its own rich rewards.