It's been a big year for films of the "and nothing was ever the same after that summer" genre. Between "Mud," "The Kings of Summer," and now "The Way, Way Back," teenage boys have been coming of age all over your multiplex. (I swear I didn't mean to make that sound quite so filthy...) If nothing else, it proves the versatility of movies of this type when they're done right. From thriller to whimsical fantasy to the more traditional dramedy that "The Way, Way Back" traffics in, each above-mentioned film has brought something different to their tales of an adolescent's journey toward maturity. But despite probably being the most formulaic, "Back" is far and away the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch. The audience at the preview screening I attended actually applauded at the end, and I can't even remember the last time I was in a movie theater where that happened.
Duncan (Liam James, "The Killing") has been dragged along on summer vacation with his mother, Pam (a wonderful Toni Collette), and her condescending, dickish new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, in his villain mode) along with Trent's bitchy teenage daughter, and he couldn't be less happy about it. Duncan is an introverted, socially awkward 14-year-old, and the idyllic beachside setting of the lake house where they're vacationing only adds to his feeling of isolation. As his mother acts less like herself, getting drunk with Trent and his friends (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) and gossiping with their gregarious next-door neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney, all but stealing the movie), Duncan feels left in the dust.
Things look up slightly when he meets Betty's sensitive daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, "Soul Surfer"), who seems to be just about the same amount of miserable as he is. "It's like spring break for adults," Susanna notes, observing their mothers' juvenile behavior. Also the product of divorced parents, Susanna and Duncan bond over their shared angst. Naturally Duncan develops a crush, but of course he's too painfully shy to do anything about it. Then Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the friendly, free-spirited manager of the Water Wizz water park down the road. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, giving him a part-time job at the park and generally showing him the ropes. Under Owen's unorthodox tutelage, the teen slowly comes out of his shell and learns a few life lessons along the way.
James makes for an immensely appealing lead. Just the right amount of dorky, he makes Duncan's innate decency shine through the character's reticent nature. James has a nice chemistry with Robb, but it pales in comparison to the interactions between him and Sam Rockwell, and that's intentional; it's the relationship between Owen and Duncan that's truly the heart of the film. Rockwell and James have a nice, playful dynamic and they bounce off one another incredibly well, managing to tap into a poignant emotional undercurrent when the chips are down.
Carell's character is never anything other than a complete lout, but the actor gives him just enough dimension that he doesn't becomes an outright caricature. When he tells Duncan early on that as a person he sees the kid as a 3 out of 10, it's clear that in his mind he's imparting important life lessons and helping to snap a disaffected youth out of his malaise. The supporting cast is rounded out with ringers, and the staff of Water Wizz is filled with a fantastic collection of comedic actors, including the always-welcome Maya Rudolph as the put-upon assistant manager who also functions as a potential love interest for Owen.
The Oscar-winning screenwriting duo of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who previously collaborated with Alexander Payne on "The Descendants") acquit themselves well in their directorial debut; the film zips along entertainingly. Their script too often relies on contrived and formulaic developments, and there's never any real question of where the story is headed. But when the formula is melded to strong writing, charismatic performers, and a fun setting, the predictable way in which the events unfold doesn't seem to matter so much. I had a smile on my face nearly the entire way through. "The Way, Way Back" is like a great beach novel; not the most complex or challenging entertainment out there, but definitely one of the most satisfying.