Fox Searchlight — the studio that brought us Garden State, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine — has a knack for these pleasure centers, and The Way, Way Back is the latest installment in this line of cutesy, sentimental films. It opens Friday.
The story follows the 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, TV’s The Killing), an awkward, introverted adolescent who begrudgingly accompanies his mother, her autocratic boyfriend and his daughter to a coastal summer vacation home.
As the family’s black sheep, Duncan has a difficult time fitting in, but he finds sanctuary in the local Water Wizz water park, whose manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths), takes Duncan under his wing.
It’s a linear storyline suited for a wide range of moviegoers, yet the film never really challenges its audience, opting for a dumbed-down struggle that doesn’t think much of your capacity to infer or come to your own conclusions.
This is made perfectly clear from the film’s outset. In its opening scene, we find an aloof Duncan in the backseat of a car with his headphones plugged in, as Trent — his mother’s boyfriend (Steve Carell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) — asks him to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Disinterested in the question, Duncan reluctantly gives himself a 6, and Trent — in an obvious ploy to assert his superiority — tells Duncan he thinks he’s more of a 3.
It’d be one thing if Trent were doing this in even a mildly altruistic fashion, but co-writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants) really want you to know that this guy has no redeeming qualities — to the point where it almost feels like they’re rubbing your face in it.
Other issues of believability exist throughout the film. Next-door neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer) takes up an inexplicable interest in the ham-handed Duncan, even after several excruciatingly awkward encounters.
Faxon and Rash seem to force this issue rather than letting it unfold naturally, or at least offering the slightest kernel of reason to the notion that a girl way, way out of Duncan’s league might find him to be anything other than an excruciating bore.
The film’s one saving grace is Rockwell in his brilliant portrayal of an unlikely father figure, offering the most depth, allure and comic relief in a cast of largely uninteresting characters. Had Faxon and Rash been as passionate in writing for the rest of the cast, The Way, Way Back might have offered a little more intrigue.
As an easy, lighthearted dramedy that’s unlikely to offend, you could say the film achieves what it set out to be. But if you’re looking for a poignant coming-of-age tale in which you can actually relate to its characters, you might be better off with one of Fox Searchlight’s earlier offerings. —Zach Hale