Familiar and tad predictable, yet funny and satisfying, The Way, Way Back is a breezy throwback to Meatballs era of coming-of-age comedies, and a refreshing bit of counter-programming in a summer full of bombastic big-budget event movies.
The movie was produced, written, and directed by actors Nat Faxon (Bad Teacher) and Jim Rash (Community), the Academy Award-winning co-writers of Alex Payne’s The Descendants. They plumb some of the same themes here, namely the rough transition from adolescence to teenage to young adult, especially in the fallout of a busted family situation. This time, they narrow their focus to one character, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), an awkward, lonely kid who is equal parts endearing and frustrating. Duncan and his mother Pam (Toni Collette) are spending their summer at a beach house with her domineering boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, who finally ditches the nice-guy routine) and his bratty daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).
Duncan largely mopes while Pam, Trent, and their neighbors — the hilariously abrasive Betty (a scene-stealing Allison Janney), clueless Kip (Rob Corddry), and siren Joan (Amanda Peet) — try to recapture their youth by drinking until sunrise, scoring pot from Betty’s son, and pretending their lives haven’t been screwed up by assorted infidelities. The kid is stuck with being ignored by Steph, trying to avoid Betty’s son Peter (River Alexander) and his weird lazy eye, and making awkward conversation with her teen daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
Enter Owen (Sam Rockwell), slacker owner of the outdated water park Water Wizz, who sees something in Duncan, perhaps a little of his own misfit self, and takes him under his wing as a protege of sorts. Cue a turbulent-yet-idyllic summer in which valuable lessons and mad dance skills are learned, hearts are broken and healed, and life is forever changed.
So yeah, it’s a bit formulaic, but as a paean to summer movies The Way, Way Back is meant to be formulaic, and as such it’s way more fun than it should be. Faxon and Rash keep the story moving and the characters engaging, even when we know what to expect from them. Much of that has to do with the insanely talented cast they’ve assembled, especially Rockwell, whose rapid-fire quips, oddball ’80s references, and savvy people skills present Owen as a sort of Yoda with A.D.D. Janney also adds an element of unpredictability as woman a little to prone to saying what she’s thinking, as does Carrell by benefit of being cast against type.
Thankfully, The Way, Way Back avoids saccharine sentimentality and cheap gags, and when it’s over, we’re sad to see it end — just like summer itself.