Fresh from the successful penning of 2011’s adaptation of “The Descendants,” Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have joined together once again to produce a nostalgic, summer film that’s guaranteed to dig up at least some faded memories of adolescence. Following fourteen year old Duncan (Liam James) as he’s forced to vacation with his recently divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s teenage daughter, “The Way, Way Back” walks the familiar trail of teenage angst and dysfunctional families set by the likes of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno,” which the poster so proudly connects this film to. As the script divvies up the expected snappy dialogue, wacky characters, and enough 80s pop culture references to fulfill its nerd cred, what starts as a potentially entertaining feel good movie quickly degenerates into dull humour and unimaginative scenarios that, by the end, prove to be downright cringe worthy.
“You do know that Luke and Leia are siblings, right?”
While vacationing at Trent’s beach house for the summer, the shy and withdrawn Duncan finds that he has nothing but a miserable two months to look forward to as Trent consistently points out his mistakes, Pam brushes off his complaints and encourages him to give Trent a chance, and his absent father continues to reschedule visits. With no one to talk to outside of the girl next door and a local kid with a Star Wars obsession, Duncan explores the town and eventually finds a nearby water park known as the Water Wizz. After meeting its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), Duncan is taken under his wing and provided a job that allows him a place to escape to during the day.
In recalling the endlessly sunny days of summer vacation, the movie flows at a relaxed pace as Duncan moves between the wild antics of the Water Wizz staff and his home life, where he’s forced to hang out with his family and their neighbours. The cast is fairly large and, with such a colourful group of people, you would think that the resulting hijinks would be charming in that way that only an indie movie could be. Except, as it turns out, every word said and action taken feels as though it was taken straight out of a handbook for making a movie of this type. We have a lovable neighbour who never stops drinking and is always ready to offer advice, a love interest who’s quiet like Duncan and has few defining features outside of a preference for reading over gossip, a man-child who grows into a semi-responsible father figure, and a one-dimensional scumbag boyfriend who, surprise, cheats on Duncan’s mother. The entire film reeks with so much predictability that its attempts at offering relatable conflict and heartfelt messages about self-acceptance lose any meaning they might have had.
The throwback references to REO Speedwagon and tired one liners don’t really help much either. While both Sam Rockwell and Jim Rash as the stand offish water park attendant offer some great moments that keep the movie from becoming too stale, the latter is given very little screen time and the whole of it just ends up sounding forced. The film also adopts a very heavy ‘us vs. them’ mentality that I wasn’t a fan of. In order to draw sympathy for Duncan and rally the audience on the side of the Water Wizz staff, Trent is made into a simplistic bully while the writing of his daughter and her friends sounded as though neither of the writers had ever actually spoken to a teenage girl. While, in theory, you kinda feel sorry for Duncan, the characters feel more like caricatures than real people which makes it hard to take any of the events seriously.
“Could he be any more of a tool?”
As the film is shot from Duncan’s perspective, it’s conceivable that the flat character writing might stem from the self-centered outlook that can sometimes paint someone’s teen years. The film shows a great deal of interest in exploring the growing up process and the disappointments faced along the way. Liam James’ depiction of an awkward kid is realistic to the point of it being painful to watch as he times his responses poorly or says something embarrassing. Similarly, he’s so preoccupied with his own problems that he barely gives a response when the girl from next door happily shares good news with him, and he yells at his mother for not standing up to Trent for being unfaithful. I’m left with the impression that writing the characters from his perspective may have been the intent of the writers in order to present a more realistic view of the teen years. But, even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make me like the film any more than I did before.
Having seen so many movies over the years that have skillfully managed to depict adolescence and the entangled emotions that define it, “The Way, Way Back’s” approach proves too simplistic to really get behind. It’s not uplifting, insightful, or even all that humorous. Rather, it hits all the benchmarks for what a feel good, coming of age tale should have and seems to just call it a day. There are much better movies out there (two of them are even listed on the poster!). You should go watch those instead.