Though set in the present day, The Way, Way Back has the feel of a period piece, perhaps because the title refers to an artifact of a previous generation–the station wagon. Our hero, Duncan (Liam James) is riding in the third seat, or the way, way back, and not only that, he is facing backwards, metaphorically hauled to an unwilling destination.
And it is unwilling. He is going with his mother (Toni Collette) to the beach house of her new boyfriend, Steve Carell. In the opening moments of the film, Carell asks James where he would rank himself on a scale from one to ten. James, reluctant to even speak to the man, says six, but Carell cruelly tells him he’s only a three.
This is the dynamic of the often very good if a bit treacly film, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar along with Alexander Payne for The Descendants). James, 14 and extremely socially awkward, despises every moment spent with Carell, who is a dick of the highest order.
Two things will help James survive this torment: the daughter of the next-door neighbor, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who sees James as a kindred soul, and the gang at a local water park, especially Sam Rockwell, a loquacious slacker who takes the kid under his wing.
The Way, Way Back is often very heartfelt and emotionally charged. Anyone who was a shy kid or knows one will identify with James, although he is so closed that it’s a surprise he hasn’t been put on meds. His connection to the folks at the water park (amusingly called Water Wizz) really rings true–it really does look like a fun place to work. The scenes at home are not quite as authentic–though Carell plays against his usual image, it’s hard to understand why everyone doesn’t see him as an asshole. Still, a scene in which a game of Candyland breaks down is very well done.
The scenes with Robb are also nicely done. She is in with the popular crowd, but can’t really stand them. Her mother (Allison Janney) is an obnoxious lush, so it’s understandable why she takes an interest in James. However, there is a bit of an adolescent fantasy at work here, as Robb is exceedingly pretty. Perhaps a plainer actress would have made more sense here.
Most of the acting is good. As stated, Carell is effective, maybe too much so. Collette gives a very subtle performance as a woman torn between her own needs and her son’s, and Rockwell is convincing as a Peter Pan type (Maya Rudolph, the manager of the park, is his Wendy). Janney is basically playing the same annoying person she did in Away We Go, but here she’s not as abrasive.
The ending packs some power, even if there’s an unnecessary bit about performing a legendary feat on a water slide. The last shot, in that way, way back, seat is a very nice ending.
My grade for The Way, Way Back: B