Expanding into Tarrant County this week, the agreeable summer comedy The Way, Way Back begins with Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old from Albany, in the last place he wants to be: in the back seat of a station wagon driven by his mom’s new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) to Trent’s beach house. During the trip, Trent tells Duncan that on a scale of 1 to 10, Duncan rates a 3. With his mother (Toni Collette) providing little buffer between Duncan and either Trent or his oppressive adult friends, it’s no wonder that the boy has to find solace hanging out at the run-down local water park with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s smooth-talking slacker manager.
This is the first movie directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, two actors whose first screenwriting job (for The Descendants) landed them an Oscar nomination. They show up onscreen here as park employees, and behind the camera, they take the movie at an appropriately languid pace. Not surprisingly, they concentrate their energies on directing their actors and get good results from Allison Janney, a boozy, blowsy blast as Trent’s divorced and on-the-make neighbor, as well as AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter, giving the proceedings a welcome shot of acid as a girl who bonds with Duncan over their inadequate mothers. The eternally underappreciated Rockwell shines brightly, too, doing justice to Owen’s slouchy wit but straightening up when he realizes he can be a better father figure to Duncan than Trent could ever be. Rockwell’s gentle resilience is precisely what the role needs.
This theme park still has a few cracks. Trent is one-dimensionally awful despite Carell’s savvy underplaying, and you can’t understand why Duncan’s mom is so weak that she sticks with him even after she’s given proof that he’s unworthy of her. Duncan himself doesn’t really come to life until late in the movie. Faxon and Rash are laudably trying to create an awkward main character who doesn’t have an arsenal of snappy comebacks to cope with his domestic situation, but for too much of the movie the kid comes off like a stick in the mud. Compare this movie to the similar Adventureland, and you’ll find it comes up short.
Then again, the better and certainly more flattering comparison might be Grown Ups 2, a far worse comedy that’s probably going to make far more money. The Way, Way Back deserves your cash much more, and not just because it was made by people who clearly give a crap. This low-budget comedy is charming and funny, and those are rarer qualities at the multiplex than they should be.
The Way, Way Back
Starring Liam James, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Rated PG-13.