Overall, The Way, Way Back is an enjoyable film, just not the next great Sundance-approved comedy it may appear to be. It does, however, serve as an important reminder for viewers, one not made nearly often enough, that Sam Rockwell is a national treasure. Scenes that involve his endearing man-child Owen ushering introverted 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) into a life of friendship and acceptance are unquestionably the film’s finest and allow Rockwell firecracker humor to shine. Owen’s arrested development water park world is one that’s a pleasure to inhabit, and, as it is with Duncan once the work day is done, time away from Water Wizz is time wishing to revisit its slides and shenanigans.
These down times become all the more undesirable considering the extent to which Duncan’s life is jammed with pain and toxic people. Dragged by his mom Pam (Toni Collette) to the Massachusetts seaside summer home of her bullying boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), an already moody Duncan becomes further isolated by adults and fellow teens who have little interest in his company. Nearly each exchange for the first half hour is therefore an exercise in discomfort, and while there’s not a weak performance in the bunch (Allison Janney’s unedited, prying neighbor is a particular master of malaise), there’s little pleasure in their presence. Even the accidental humor of Carrell’s Michael Scott-like cries of “Pam” only hold so much charm when Trent and his ridiculous peers are all but bereft of redeeming qualities.
The purpose of these early repulsive scenes become clear once Duncan finds his place among the fellow misfits at Water Wizz, but even for a film about an introverted teen, The Way, Way Back goes a touch overboard with its stagnant opening tone. Languishing for so long in this awkward, unsettling (and rarely funny) style, the entrenched approach suggests a tonal experiment along the lines of Mike Mills’ likewise raw start to Beginners. Too focused on hitting the quirky beats of what’s ultimately a fairly generic coming-of-age film, co-writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash aren’t quite working on Mills’ level, as evidenced by more undercooked characters and relationships than convincing ones. Though the first-time filmmakers get plenty right and generally keep the pace active, many narrative strands come off as rickety or merely there for a quick forgettable chuckle.
Fortunately, Faxon and Rash give Rockwell an all-star part, who in turn rewards their trust with a film-saving effort. Just how much of this success is the writing and how much is Rockwell’s delivery is debatable, but when Owen does something like turn Bonnie Taylor’s “Holding Out For A Hero” lyrics into farcical requirements for a volunteer, the film can do no wrong. The residuals of such pleasant moments are nearly enough to overlook the filmmakers’ struggles to find an agreeable ending and, more troubling, the fact that their big finale occurs out of sight. Still, with the smile from Owen’s latest one-liner still lingering, such shortcomings are forgivable.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.