The Way, Way Back is one of those refreshing treats that pop up too rarely during the summer. It manages to be charming even while depicting people behaving badly, seamlessly blending comedy, drama and those terribly awkward moments in-between. The film is a coming-of-age story that travels familiar ground, but feels fresh because the characters are distinct and, more importantly, believable.
Credit the well-chosen cast and the writer-director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who shared an Oscar with Alexander Payne for their screenplay for The Descendants. Faxon and Rash are adept at imbuing characters with enough specificity to make them seem universal.
The film opens with Duncan (Liam James), a quiet, glum 14-year-old boy sitting way, way back in an old station wagon (with a rear-facing third seat) as his recently divorced mom, Pam (Toni Collette), dozes and her well-intentioned jerk of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), decides to give the boy a pep talk, informing Duncan that on a scale of one to 10, he considers the kid a three, and then launching into a motivational speech. Duncan is stunned. The group, including Trent's teen daughter, are headed for a beach town on the northeast to spend the summer at Trent's place there.
At the beach house, Pam and Duncan get acclimated while Trent introduces them to his friends. Betty is a loud, happy boozer played by Alison Janey, and Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) are a happy couple. Duncan wants none of this and has little interest in the younger residents, with the possible exception of Betty's daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who is a bit older and not as mean as the other neighborhood girls.
Eager to stay as far away from the family as possible, Duncan spends his days exploring the town on a streamer-laden bicycle he finds in the garage. Eventually, he comes across Water Wizz, a water park that draws crowds despite not having been spruced up since the '80s. He is soon befriended by Owen (Sam Rockwell), who runs the place, and becomes friends with the joke-telling adult, securing a job working with Owen, his girlfriend Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) and the rest of the crew (which includes writer-directors Faxon and Rash).
Duncan doesn't tell the family about the job - he doesn't tell them about anything. Meanwhile, back at the beach, the summer-long party rolls on, with some of the adults acting more immature than their children. Things get complicated, and the vacation takes a wrong turn.
The pleasure of the film comes from the way the writers and actors present their characters. Duncan is a nice kid, but not a standout. He grows as a person through his experiences with father figure/mentor Owen, but only a reasonable amount. Owen, who appears to be trying to become Bill Murray's character in Meatballs, is presented by Sam Rockwell as a full-fledged human being and not just a wiseguy. Even boozy Betty is humanized in the able hands of Alison Janney. Toni Collette is wonderful as usual and Steve Carell does an impressive job showing that Trent is more of a boob than a villain. The Way, Way Back is a small film about taking baby steps forward. It satisfies.