The subject of The Way, Way Back is so awkwardly broad that it's hard not to feel a twinge of painful nostalgia watching the film. It's about that time when you've just entered your teenage years and you can make the vague outlines out of complicated adult decisions but really just want to be left alone to learn the ways of the world your own way. A lucky few were able to spring into their adolescence with confidence and pizzazz but most of the folks I know were content to try to hide in the corner with their toys and do what's needed to get through the day.
Sometimes, on the most embarrassing days, adult figures who don't know any better would try to shove us into the limelight only to see a young body crumple under the pressure of being noticed. Before The Way, Way Back decides to force some growth on Duncan (Liam James) it has some powerful scenes with this painful philosophy. Duncan's mom, Pam (Toni Colette), has started dating again after her divorce and settled on the passive-aggressive Trent (Steve Carell). In the opening, and best scene, of the film Trent stares at Duncan through the rear-view mirror and tries to get the kid to judge himself before telling him that, on a scale of 1 to 10, Duncan is a 3.
That scene shows just how painful it is to go through the most awkward time in your life with authority figures who think they know better just because they lived through it. If The Way, Way Back handled the rest of Duncan's summer like this opening scene with harsh truth and good humor then it would be one of the best films of the year. Instead it takes the easy path, introducing a bunch of colorful supporting figures and a wacky mentor, and wraps up adolescence with a pretty bow. I'm not saying those formative years have to be awkward, but The Way, Way Back tries to sidestep problems with humor that falls flat, and an ending that's too perfect.
While on vacation with his mom, Trent, and Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) he encounters Owen (Sam Rockwell) who works at the local water park. Through contrived circumstances Duncan starts working at the park and becomes an apprentice of Owen's zany ways. Owen is already a badly cliched character but having him played by Rockwell makes things worse. Rockwell's "too smart for this room" routine was played out years ago and this movie force-feeds him quips and one-liners like it was writing for Robin Williams. He is a solid performer when asked to do something different but here it's the same old cocky Rockwell with material that would be fun if it weren't so self-consciously mired in sarcasm.
Owen is supposed to offer Duncan a model of what he could grow into at the end of the summer but Duncan barely has a trajectory through the film. His anti-social behavior is cloaked in not funny scenes like when he shows his awkardness by singing REO Speedwagon on a station wagon or break dancing in the water park. The camera keeps its distance like Duncan is the figure of a geek show and the result is less empathetic and more "Ha, look how weird this kid is." Sure, he strikes a romance of sorts with the girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) but neither she nor he have anything interesting to talk about as their dialogue barely rises above "this is what I'm feeling right now and this is what just happened." James seems like a talented kid but he starts and ends the movie in roughly the same mopey state.
I'm uncertain what tone screenwriting / directing team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (both won an Oscar for The Descendants) are going for with the film. It's too mired to the plot momentum to play with the lazy feel of summer and seems to move between different worlds with the carefree water park and Trent's stern authority. Since Duncan isn't an interesting enough kid to bridge the worlds together the film plays like a collection of genre sketches instead of telling an overall story. This lack of cohesion plays into a lot of the little touches in the film with the Pac-Man machines and Toto making it seem like a film set in the '80s when it supposedly takes place this summer. If the rest of the park and town felt like an anachronism those could have been details showing a town out of step with the progress of the rest of the world instead of bits of pop culture that call attention to themselves and nothing more.
Even with all these rough edges there are some great parts to The Way, Way Back. Carell and Collette both turn in great performances in the one storyline that is given full complicated weight. Before things get wrapped up a bit too perfectly in the end Collette has a perfect moment of loneliness and need that shows just how hard it is for some people to trudge forward solo as they get older. The star award goes to Carell who is playing slightly against type with Trent. He perfectly conveys a kind of know-it-all outsider who shared some of the same pain that Duncan has growing up but became a bully himself instead of growing as a person. Rash hoards all the wit in the screenplay and casts himself in the funniest role as Lewis, a man too smart to work at a water park but not motivated enough to get where he wants to go.
His small arc shows just how much better The Way, Way Back could have been. I do feel a kinship for what Duncan was going through but his awkwardness and growth is not a story that needed to be shared with everyone. There lies another painful lesson, sometimes your tale just isn't worth telling.