Though the script includes bits and pieces of writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's real childhoods, The Way, Way Back is a slick debut that feels like a recycling of familiar coming-of-age materials. It even shares with The Descendants, for which Faxon and Rash won an adapted screenplay Oscar, the premise of mopey teenagers in beach settings upset with the paternal figures in their lives. It doesn't help that this is the third (male) coming-of-age tale in as many months, the other two being Mud and The Kings of Summer.
The film's sympathetic but indistinct center is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a hunched, shambling, inarticulate boy whose loneliness weighs him down as much as his slightly out-of-date Bieber bangs. He's an everyteen we're supposed to feel sorry for — his parents are divorced, his mom (Toni Collette) has found herself a dick boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), he doesn't have the sense not to wear long pants to the beach — but he's so devoid of personality that we wish happiness for him only in the reflexive way we want to pet a sorry-looking puppy. Duncan is driven into further solitude on one of those summer trips that's really a test of emotional fortitude: an extended stay at Trent's beach house. He's apparently so lost there he can only entertain himself by looking forlorn until an adult comes to talk to him out of pity.
For the most part, though, the grown-ups ignore Duncan, too busy trying to recapture their own adolescence. His mom, Trent and his friends and neighbors (Allison Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry) enjoy their "spring break for adults," drinking late into the night and indulging in pot in front of their children. They make an informal game of outdoing each other's double entendres, their raunchy jokes papering over the reality that sex has undone their lives and marriages. In a less kid-centered film, the adult quintet's sangria-chugging and sexual jealousies might make for a volatile chamber drama, but here their rowdy shenanigans are neutered — they're all just props to Duncan's growth.
Among the middle-aged party animals, Janney charms as Betty, a well-meaning, ebulliently pushy neighbor, in spite of the script's role for her as a kind of female grotesquerie. "My titties need some color," she explains by way of inviting herself and her two children on a boat ride. But she doesn't have much to offer Duncan either, other than the friendship of her son, Peter (River Alexander), a foul-mouthed kid with a lazy eye.
Like an angel in gas-station aviators, in swoops Owen (Sam Rockwell), the slacker manager of the dated-as-disco Water Wizz water park, to save Duncan from his misery. Child-labor laws be damned, Owen hires Duncan and introduces him to the world of "cool" grown-ups — much cooler to teenagers than to other adults — at the Wizz, including a no-nonsense, nearly no-fun Maya Rudolph and co-directors Rash, amusingly tetchy, and Faxon, memorable only for his crooked teeth.
Owen performs alchemy on Duncan, transforming him from a mini-Lurch with a lead tongue and two left feet into the water park's golden boy. But the magic is too strong; the transformation feels like a sleight of hand. The effect is like watching Pinocchio in reverse, in which a real boy, after a few lessons from his father figure and a series of aquatic adventures, learns to be a simulacrum of one.
Web Head: Adolescence is a Fantasy in the The Way, Way Back