By Joan Ellis
Do you remember sitting in “The Way Way Back” when third row backward-facing seats were first installed in family station wagons?
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have recreated the emotional and physical isolation of that terrible place as a metaphor for the dilemma faced by an awkward teenager, named Duncan (Liam James), as he begins his 14th summer.
The movie opens with Duncan trapped alone back there while his mother sleeps in the front seat next to her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) who is peppering him with humiliating questions. The distance between them is a monstrous mile. They are heading to Trent’s beach house for a whole summer of testing. Can Duncan adjust to the new man in his mother’s life? Can they become a family?
The director delivers the worst of the movie first. By midpoint it would be surprising if we weren’t in passionate revolt against Steve Carrell’s Trent who is a cold, dense and unappealing zero. The next-door neighbor, who lives close enough to reach out and touch Trent’s house, is ever present and overbearing but because she is played by Allison Janney, we keep hoping for the best. Add an awful couple that keeps dropping by for loud, alcohol-fueled evenings of too loud laughter and dull-witted conversation and the audience could be forgiven for leaving.
To avoid this dysfunctional family disaster, Duncan rides his bike each day to the nearby somewhat shabby Wizz Water Park where he has the unexpected good luck of running into lazy manager Owen and Owen’s co-manager and soul mate Caitlin (a terrific Maya Rudolph). Owen gives Duncan a staff shirt and a job, and the summer changes. So does the movie. The odd movie begins to slip into our own emotions as the boy – inch by slow inch – gains confidence from the friendships and new responsibilities at the water park. The irrepressible Owen sees that the boy simply needs encouragement to become himself.
Meanwhile, back at the beach cottage the family melodrama continues in serial eruptions. Though Tony Collette’s Pam is clearly a better human being than her shallow summer companions, she’s been dumped once before and she’s scared to stand up for herself. She too feels trapped.
On the other hand, the water park managers – even Lewis (Jim Rash) – morph into bedrock for Duncan. From there, he dares to grow up.
If directors Faxon and Rash spent too long on the awful Steve Carell, they atone for that mistake at the park. This is a first you get mad, then you laugh, then you cry movie.
Sam Rockwell’s Owen knows exactly when to drop his own comic aggression to lift the fog that clouds the boy’s adolescent understanding of the life he thinks he can’t change. He hands Duncan the tools for the job, the boy responds, and finally he ends up again in the Way Way Back. But this time he is not alone.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.