Film Review: The Way, Way Back

A coming-of-age flick for a product of today&#8217;s fractured family&#8212;a teenage eye-view of the addled adulthood ahead. Scripters-<i>and</i>-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, in their first film since co-writing <a href="

Maybe those Despicable Me movies were good for Steve Carell. At the outset of The Way, Way Back, in the opening lines of dialogue, he lets you know he’s not interested in your sympathy vote, picking on his prospective stepson, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), whom he’s dragooned along with the boy’s mother (Toni Collette) into a crucial make-or-break summer at his beach house. On a scale of ten, he rates the lad a three when the boy’s own damaged self-esteem can barely muster a six.

The film that follows chronicles Duncan’s rise in the charts—the arduous, scene-by-scene business of finding his place and voice in the world. Nerdy and introverted after his parents’ divorce, he takes a while to climb out of his navel—which is understandable, given the bizarre welcoming committee at this resort town.

Allison Janney, in a hilarious turn as the lush next door, staggers out of her house to greet the new arrivals, drink in hand, virtually tommy-gunning the one-liners. Sad to say, after a ferociously funny start, she soon levels off into a holding pattern and shows you the human being that lurks behind the wisecracks. Plus (and of particular importance to our young hero), she has a lovely daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), who is imminently more desirable than Carell’s nasty, stingray offspring (Zoe Levin).

While Janney cools her heels, another equally flamboyant character takes hold of the picture and doesn’t let go. This would be Owen, a scruffy slacker who operates the local swimming-and-sliding water park, Water Wizz, and he is played with maximum charm and charisma by Sam Rockwell. He brings Duncan out of his shell and puts him to work in the park, assigning him all sorts of character-building tasks and essentially filling the bill of the father figure that the boy craves and needs.

Among Owen’s other hires at the park are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who, making their double directorial debuts here, masterminded this delightful antic and wrote themselves into their own original narrative. With director Alexander Payne, they co-scripted the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants, and their penchant for sketching engagingly off-center characters certainly has not diminished any. The sparkling performances they draw from Rockwell and Janney are a testament to what knowing actors can do when they apply themselves to top-notch material.

Overall, there is a sweetness to the film, most of it stemming from Liam James. He carries the film, zombie-like at first, but ably once his character comes slowly alive.

The carefree ambiance of a beach town in season is effectively conveyed in John Bailey’s resourceful camerawork. Location lensing was done in Massachusetts, but the general look of the settings could be anywhere with too much sun and sand.