“The Way, Way Back” is a mediocre, subpar version of a movie that we’ve seen many times before. It’s a Sundance-bred coming-of-age drama, likely autobiographical, and primarily about the nerdish protagonist, his pining for a girl, and his daddy issues.
The directorial debut of the screenwriting team of sitcom actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash- who also wrote the Oscar-winning “The Descendants”- “The Way, Way Back” is the story of Duncan (Liam James), a sullen 15-year-old spending the summer in an upstate New York shore town who escapes from the appalling adults around him by catching on with the colorful characters at a local water park, led by charmer and potential father figure Sam Rockwell.
Brought to the beach by his mother (Toni Collette) and her abominable boyfriend (Steve Carell), and surrounded by a cast of characters that includes a playing-to-the-back-rows Allison Janney as a boozy neighbor, James tries to get things going with Janney’s comely daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), between secret trips to the water park. But throughout, he’s clearly, obviously uncomfortable.
The problem overall is that nothing here is all that compelling. We’ve seen this same story so many times, and “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” last fall, was a significantly better version of this. The underappreciated “Adventureland,” from 2009 with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, was too, even incorporating an amusement park. There’s even a scene in which the shy kid wins over a skeptical crowd with a dance routine, which I liked a lot better the time Napoleon Dynamite did it.
At times it feels somewhat lazy, such as when Duncan’s coming-out-of-his-shell is reduced to a 90-second montage sequence. And aside from memorable turns by Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, and the two screenwriters, nothing that takes place at the water park is all that memorable.
There’s something else a little off here. Maybe it’s that while the movie is set in the present day, just about every signifier- clothes, hair, cars, music- is straight out of 1982. It’s even shot in the brownish colors of ’70s/early ’80s cinema. Even the water park looks like it’s from 30 years ago, which is explained away with one line of dialogue. As is the explanation for why Carell character, the sort of modern-day douchebag who’d likely own a fancy sports car, instead drives a Reagan-era station wagon.
It’s clear that this film is heavily autobiographical on the part of one or both of the writer/directors, and chances are one of them really did take long road trips in the rear-facing back seat of a wood-paneled station wagon, and really did get caught by a girl singing along with REO Speedwagon, albeit probably not on an iPod.
Carell is menacing- picture Michael Scott, only as a full-on adulterous sociopath- and it’s always great to see the serially underused Collette, although a little bit of Janney’s scenery-chewing goes a long way. The water park, once again, is full of great characters- including both Faxon and Rash, plus Rudolph. As for James’ performance, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, he’s believable as an actual nerd and outcast, but on the other he’s not nearly charismatic enough to carry the film.
I’m a fan of Faxon and Rash both as actors and writers, and this was clearly a personal project for them. For their second film, I expect better.