The Way, Way Back

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Way Back
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 
Duncan (Liam James) is facing a very bleak summer vacation with his divorcee mom (Toni Collette) and her jerk of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), at the man's summer home. The boy has no friends and he has to watch his mother, Trent and his friends as they party 24/7. The only saving graces are the girl next door, Sussana (AnnaSophia Robb), and the wacky manager of a local water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who helps Duncan find "The Way, Way Back."

Robin:
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash dazzled us with their debut screenplay for “The Descendants.” The pair have decided to expand their professional horizons and donned the mantle of directors as well as co-writers (and costars) for “The Way, Way Back.” The result is much more than a simple coming of age story. It is a slice of life tale, not just for Duncan, but for all the flawed adults around him. The boy is the solitary observer of life in the close knit summer community but Duncan would rather be with his father thousands of miles away. To keep himself amused, he peddles a hot pink girl’s bicycle with a banana seat around town. His free-spirited wandering attracts the attention of Sussana, a pretty girl just a little older than Duncan and a kindred spirit. Summer does not look so bleak, now, for the teenage boy.

“The Way, Way Back” works well on its several levels. Scribes Faxon and Rash have a real sense of people and they draw their characters with believability. I was Duncan when I was a teen and remember the awkwardness of that age. Unfortunately, I was not lucky enough to have a friend and mentor like Owen. Sam Rockwell is terrific as the almost irresponsible and thoroughly irreverent manager of the Water Wizz water park. Life is a playground for the guy and his joie de vie is palpable and it rubs off on Duncan. The big brother, little brother relationship between Owen and Duncan rings genuine.

The rest of the cast are not slouches by any means. Toni Collette gives her character, Pam, a frightened center as we watch her desperation in not wanting to be alone, even if it is with a jerk like Trent. Speaking of which, Steve Carrell goes against type and makes his Trent a not very likable, but very believable character. Allison Janney, as next door neighbor and hardy partier Betty, is perfect as the boozing divorcée who always – morning, noon and night – has a drink in her hand. AnnaSophia Robb is perfect as girl next door and object of Duncan’s affection.

There is a lot going on in “The Way, Way Back” and these stories are intelligently told. The actors inhabit their characters and bring them to life. You really get the feel of life in a summer community (the film was shot in the coastal town of Wareham Massachusetts). I give it a B+.

Laura:
Awkward 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James, AMC's 'The Killing') couldn't be less thrilled about spending his summer on the Cape with his mom's (Toni Collette) boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his teenaged daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Duncan can't understand why his mom's settled for this martinet, so when he finds a pink girl's bike in Trent's garage, he begins to explore and finds himself at Water Wizz, a water park operated by the irresponsible and irreverent Owen (Sam Rockwell, "Seven Psychopaths"), an unlikely mentor for Duncan to find "The Way, Way Back."

Cowriters/codirectors/costars Nat Faxon and Jim Nash ("The Descendants") make their directorial debut with this sure-to-be-crowd-pleasing coming of age film.  It has its charms, most notably in Rockwell's wise-cracking put-on artist, but it never goes for anything really deep as 2009's similarly themed "Adventureland" did, while taking a few missteps along the way.

We know immediately that Duncan and Trent are in for a contentious relationship when Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1-10 as they travel to the Cape.  'A 6,' hazards Duncan only to be rebuffed with 'a 3' and the reasons for it from Trent.  Why Pam's inner maternal alarm wouldn't be screaming from the get-go, especially as she's looking for a father figure for her son, is a mystery.

Upon arrival, the group is assaulted by Trent's pushy, boozy freshly divorced summer neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), who embarrasses Duncan with her sexual innuendo and pushes her lazy-eyed boy Peter (River Alexander) for companionship.  Duncan's reticence catches the attention of her sixteen year-old daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, "Soul Surfer"), though, unlikely as it seems. The more Trent makes demands of Duncan, the more the boy seeks escape, so as his mom suffers the alcohol-fueled antics of Trent's married friends Kip (Rob Corddry, "Warm Bodies") and Joan (Amanda Peet, "2012," "Please Give"), Duncan blossoms in the weird world of Water Wizz. Intrigued by his almost daily disappearances, Susanna follows Duncan and discovers he's working at the water park, the only one to know.  But when Duncan discovers where Trent's been disappearing to, he calls him on it in a very public display.

While it's interesting to see Carell cast against type, the adults' frivolous behavior (except for caterer Pam, who mostly cooks and tries to fit in) is a bore to be around.  That shifts all the fun to Water Wizz, where Owen will, of course, learn from Duncan too.  Owen's been carrying a torch for park employee Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph, "Bridesmaids"), who's been frustrated by his irresponsibility.  Owen's other employees include the filmmakers - Rash (TV's 'Community') is Lewis, the guy who keeps on quitting only to return to his lonely rental shack while Faxon ("Zookeeper") is Roddy, the leering gatekeeper of the Wizz's largest water slide.  They're fun to be around, but the method used to make Owen come out of his shell - Owen's insistence that he break up an impromptu breakdance performance - is weak.  Not only do the dancers tolerate the meek-mannered kid, they challenge him, and after a few average moves, he's tagged 'Pop 'n Lock.'  Never has a title felt so unearned in a situation so unrealistic. By the same token, Owen's farewell gesture, a challenge to overtake him in the covered slide, a feat never accomplished, makes no sense.  A conflict between Steph and Susanna is established, then goes nowhere.  "The Descendents" this is not.

"The Way, Way Back" has an appealing nostalgia for beach cottage family vacations and their constrained togetherness as well as mom and pop amusements.  But for all its attempts at storminess, it doesn't offer anything more than a summer breeze.

B-
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