Comedic actors Nat Faxon (“Ben and Kate”) and Jim Rash (“Community”) walked off with a couple of Oscars for their efforts screenwriting director Alexander Payne’s 2011 hit The Descendants. To spread the credit around a bit, they did have Kaui Hart Hemmings’ wonderfully textured novel as a starting point. Still that’s two more Oscar statues than Leonardo DiCaprio has, so let’s give the boys a little credit. Two years later and they’ve finally capitalized on the Hollywood bonhomie, writing—and directing—their own original feature.
In a great many ways, The Way, Way Back is your typical, seriocomic coming-of-age-tale, relating the story of “that one magical summer” in which everything changed for some angst-ridden teenage boy. In this particular case, our angst-ridden protagonist is 14-year-old bump-on-a-log Duncan (Liam James from “Psych” and “The Killing”). For the whole of his summer vacation, Duncan has been conscripted into accompanying his divorced mother (Toni Collette), her used-car salesman boyfriend (Steve Carell, reuniting with Collette from Little Miss Sunshine) and the boyfriend’s stuck-up teenage daughter to a beachside cabin in Massachusetts for some forced “family” bonding. Initially Duncan has little to say about the situation, staring morosely at the floor and answering most direct questions with a noncommittal shrug.
Eventually our boy Duncan seeks out a summer job at an antiquated local water park. It’s not the money he’s after. The job is just an excuse to escape his overprotective mom and her jerky boyfriend—a guy whose idea of auditioning as stepdad is to insult the kid into personal growth. It’s at the tourist trap known as Water Wizz (a real-life Cape Cod attraction), though, that Duncan actually starts to come out of his shell and exhibit some personality. There he meets the place’s slackadaisical manager (Sam Rockwell, emerging from indie film limbo) and ends up with an unexpected friend and mentor.
The Way, Way Back doesn’t exactly surprise with its characters or plot. In fact its milieu is dangerously close to that of Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s 2009 coming-of-age-at-a-crummy-amusement-park dramedy. But as it drifts along the lazy river, alternately glum and amusing, The Way, Way Back slowly charts its own course. It’s still the sort of film where the dorky main character is validated by a kiss from his cute and inexplicably smitten neighbor (the increasingly solid AnnaSophia Robb of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Soul Surfer and “The Carrie Diaries”). But it creates a painfully familiar world in which nearly every adult figure is middle-aged, divorced and in the process of screwing up his or her life. What’s the point of “coming of age” when the adults around you are all messed up, unhappy and frequently drunk?
Allison Janney (“The West Wing”) drops by as a motor-mouthed single neighbor. Rob Corddry (“The Daily Show”) and Amanda Peet (“The Good Wife”) are a party-crazed couple with trouble brewing just under the surface. Rash and Faxon cameo as two guys way too old to be working at a water park and ogling teenage girls. And Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live”) lingers as a woman who knows she should not be attracted to Sam Rockwell’s stunted adolescent. All in all, it’s a great cast, and the filmmakers milk the most out of their friends. Carell is particularly effective as a total asshole. And Rockwell reminds us why we loved him so much in crazy stuff like Moon, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Matchstick Men, Lawn Dogs and Box of Moonlight. He’s like Ryan Gosling’s funnier older brother.
The Way, Way Back isn’t nearly as refined a film as The Descendants. The screenplay doesn’t deviate much from the established formula of the subgenre. And most of the characters don’t have a lot to say for themselves. But scattered throughout are some wonderfully humane moments. The family drama is on a quiet simmer throughout, but it’s potent enough to punch you in the gut occasionally. The humor bursts through at unexpected times. And the script never tries to lecture you with obvious morals. The understated ending works as the tiniest of triumphs. After all is said and done, everything doesn’t actually change for our young hero over the course of that one magical summer. But his perspective is altered slightly. And it’s that tiny shift in the way you see things that makes all the difference. Piquantly nostalgic, bracingly funny and wise in the ways of human weakness, The Way, Way Back gives us all something to think about. And chuckle over.