Did your parents ever give you the old line about how “high school is the best time of your life?” Maybe if you were a Homecoming Queen or a football star or you spent your senior year partying in Paris that might be true. But for most of us, that’s the kind of sappy sentiment that could only be dispensed by people who never really experienced adolescence.
You can bet you’ll never hear those words from Duncan, the 14-year-old at the center of The Way, Way Back. For him, life is a series of uncomfortable conversations with the adults around him, followed by equally unpleasant encounters with other teens who always seem to be less self-conscious, more outgoing and just plain cooler than he is.
As played by the outstanding young actor Liam James, Duncan often seems like he’s been caught in a surprise thunderstorm with no shelter in sight. His problems are multiplied and magnified by his mother, Pam, who has rebounded from a difficult divorce and landed in the arms of Trent, a pushy, prickly salesman who never misses an opportunity to cut Duncan down to size.
Trent is played by a cast-against-type Steve Carell, who works diligently to scrub away every trace of charm or likability from the character. Toni Collette sympathetically plays Pam as a woman who is smart enough to know she’s selling herself short but not sure if she’s strong enough to do much about it. Trent also has a shrewish teenage daughter, played by Zoe Levin, who acts like she’s auditioning for her own reality-TV series.
What’s supposed to be a vacation getaway at Trent’s beach house on the coast of Massachusetts threatens to turn into a cruel summer for Duncan. That is, until he finds a job at a local theme park called Water Wizz, which was built in 1983 and seems to be frozen in time: One of Duncan’s duties involves breaking up break-dance competitions.
Duncan’s boss is the ingratiatingly obnoxious Owen, who could easily be mistaken for the 1983 model of Bill Murray; he’s played with spirit and splendid comic timing by Sam Rockwell, an actor who is long overdue for some major awards. Although he’s a kook and a clown, there’s some genuine wisdom behind Owen’s wisecracks and a lot of kindness beneath the pithy putdowns.
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s screenplay is a reminder that great role models sometimes turn up in unexpected places. The Way, Way Back contrasts Duncan’s journey to self-awareness with Pam’s foolish decision to throw herself into perpetual party mode, thanks to pressure from Trent and his boorish friends, played by Amanda Peet and Rob Cordrry.
“It’s like spring break for adults,” groans Duncan’s neighbor Susanna, played by the luminous and engaging Annasophia Robb.
The theme of a mother losing her grip as her son grows up is reminiscent of the underappreciated 1984 Teri Garr and Peter Weller drama Firstborn, and co-directors Rash and Faxon handle it quite well. The movie smoothly balances the pathos with humor, much of it coming from scene-stealing Allison Janney as a loquacious lush whose off-color language is matched only by her terrifying crimes of fashion.
While The Way, Way Back may not break much new ground where the topic of teen angst is concerned, it’s extremely likable and, thanks to Rockwell and Janney, often very funny.