The Way Way Back feels like it’s been assembled from a well-loved if not very original kit: one piece of geeky 14-year-old boy, two pieces of daddy issues, and assorted pieces of characters straining for wackiness, all glued together and placed in the summer sun. Writing and directing partners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon — each comic actors in their own right, and who previously teamed to adapt The Descendants — are aiming for a very specific type of movie here, one whose beats, tone, and outcome are never for a second in doubt. Sometimes this makes for dull watching. When the shy protagonist says awkward things to the pretty girl next door, you know that she’s going to be put off before finding them curiously endearing. Even the boy’s shyness and gestures feel copied from a dozen other movies. Yet there are plenty of scenes and ideas here that really work well, and Rash and Faxon have a clear love of an aptitude for those moments when buoyant comedy can suddenly give way to pathos and understanding. In such moments, The Way Way Back doesn’t feel any fresher, but it does feel much more heartfelt and intentional, and that makes all the difference.
One of the film’s biggest challenges, and one it never quite overcomes, is anchoring a dramedy around a character who barely speaks. Teenage Duncan (Liam James), is an introverted mama’s boy forced to spend the summer at a beach house with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette); Pam’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell); and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Trent regards Duncan with a kind of weary disgust, and Duncan’s usual response is to mutter noncommittal things until Trent’s focus changes. It’s a painful and honestly acted dynamic, but James’s bland screen presence and minimal dialogue wind up forcing the viewer to the side. Duncan feels like a newer model of the main character from 2007’s Rocket Science, an aspiring debater afflicted with a stutter whose admirable struggles were totally swallowed up by just about everyone else on screen (including a dynamic Anna Kendrick). He’s written so small, so conventionally, that he rarely becomes something other than the awkward kid we have to force ourselves to like. Instead, we become passive viewers of Duncan’s life just like Duncan is, mildly curious but never as invested as the filmmakers probably want us to be.
The film doesn’t take off until Rash and Faxon introduce a new world: Water Wizz, the local water park where Duncan discovers a dynamic gang of characters including Owen (Sam Rockwell), the goofy owner; Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), who helps run the park and is in a vaguely defined romance with Owen; and staffers Roddy and Lewis, played by Faxon and Rash, respectively. Again, some of the bigger picture set-ups here feel familiar, like a reworked Adventureland set among water slides, but the park is where the screenplay and energy find a new level, and not just because this is where Duncan will learn requisite lessons about confidence and girls and other things you can probably come up with on your own. The characters here have so much more like poured into them. Duncan’s splintered family plays like a story Rash and Faxon felt obligated to tell, but the story of the park feels like the one they were meant to tell. Rockwell is almost lethally charming, and his energy and guidance allow Duncan to come out of his shell and develop friendships with customers, staffers, and even the curious neighbor girl (AnnaSophia Robb) who follows Duncan to the park one day and discovers the new world he’s built for himself. The park story outshines the rest of the film not just for its humor and vitality, but for the graceful way the filmmakers are able to use that sense of spirit to explore the sadder issues that really drive Duncan. When he’s forced to confront a pack of kids who are breaking the park rules, he fights through his embarrassment and comes out a local legend; when he’s unsure about girls and plagued with self-loathing, Owen and Roddy kindly prod him on and help him stand on his feet. This, I found myself thinking time and again, was the real movie. This was the heart of the coming-of-age story that really defines the film. Duncan’s returns after work to the beachfront home, and the tawdry drama and infidelities that played out there, felt less original and organic than anything tied to the water park.
It’s not the cast’s fault. The filmmakers have an outstanding team of comic and dramatic performers here, and it is refreshing to see Carell attack a role so different from the gentle ones he usually plays. He absolutely nails the cloying passive-aggressiveness required of him, and he’s a great balance to Rockwell’s portrayal of the father figure Duncan really wants/needs. Rockwell absolutely carries the film, too. He’s the best part in it, able to be funny and silly without sacrificing any of the believability required of his quieter moments. When he’s off screen, all you can think about is when he’ll come back. Similarly, Faxon and Rash are wonderful, if they are playing roles that aren’t much of a stretch for them. (Rash here is basically a more straitlaced, low-key version of his old “Reno 911!” character, right down to the creepy glasses.) There are some strong characters and jokes here, but they feel stapled to a story trying to be “serious” by recycling old ideas.
It’s that uncomfortable duality — the lingering feeling that the filmmakers either didn’t know what story they wanted to tell or just tried to hedge their bets by telling as many stories as possible — that hinders the film and keeps it from succeeding. The final act feels perfunctory in every sense, both rushed to completion and short of any real change. Duncan does take some small steps toward a new life, and Rash and Faxon make similar progress toward their own territory as filmmakers. Their eventual destination, though, will be much more interesting than the first step they took to get there.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He never worked at a water park, but he did serve time as a movie theater usher. It was terrible. You can also find him on Twitter.