The Nat Faxon/Jim Rash independent comedy The Way, Way Back tries to evoke the days of summer, when teenage love is in the air and the familiar sounds of swimming pools and family vacations overtake the agenda. Sadly, there's not much more we get from this film, which has all the best intentions but misses badly in several important ways.
The teenager Duncan (Liam James) and his mother Pam (Toni Collette, 8 1/2 Women) are headed to a beach house for the summer, along with Pam's new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). Duncan is a typical 14-year-old boy who's been shattered by divorce: he's shy, reclusive, and social awkward. His wardrobe yells out of touch, and his poor posture sees him constantly staring at the ground. When the trio arrive, they meet the sexually ferocious Betty (Allison Janey, The West Wing series) and her daughter Katy (Ava Deluca-Verley), who doesn't subscribe to the drama-queen SOP of Duncan's sister Steph (Zoe Levin). Pam and Trent spend their evenings getting drunk with Trent's friends Kip (Rob Cordry, Warm Bodies) and his wife Joan (Amanda Peet, The Whole Ten Yards), while Duncan's foisted off on the 9-year-old lazy-eyed Star Wars collector (River Alexander). While on a journey of self-discovery, Duncan stumbles upon the aging theme park Water Wizz and the gregarious Owen (Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths), who gives him a job. As his self-confidence begins to improve, Duncan and Katy get closer, while Trent and Pam go through a painful breakup, leading to an early close to Duncan's summer. But before leaving, he must tie up several loose ends before the memory of his experiences fade away with the summer evening.
Back is supposed to be a character-driven comedy, complete with the requisite quirky characters (of which it has many), but its casting and story fail to assemble correctly into anything memorable. Carrel is (once again) oddly suited to the role of dramatic lead, failing to develop his character beyond simple jerk-womanizer status. Secondly, the idea of basing most of the story at a water park located within a beach town seems superfluous to say the least. Who in their right mind would spend their summer at a water park, when an entire ocean is nearby? And no offense, but Duncan is not a good-looking dude, and yet the cute and strangely-talkative Katy finds him a suitable catch? This 'Seth Rogan-ism' is not only unrealistic, but leads to the inevitable final kiss before Duncan's unplanned departure. If only real life benefited us ugly dudes in such ways.
However, there are bright spots here: Rockwell is his usual hilarious self, content to dance across the screen with funny one-liners aimed squarely at whoever stands in his way. He's the anchor to the story, a gateway between Duncan's unsatisfying family life and the one he's building at Water Wizz. Collette makes a believable portrayal of a mother trapped by her present situation, even though she knows Trent's friends fail to accept her. We can all see in her the chance we want to break out of our skin when something feels wrong, which humanizes her character in a way that no one other than Rockwell can match in the film. When she and Rockwell are out of scene, Back is a mostly uneven effort, failing to establish any connection to Duncan's growing relationship with Katy or the continued dysfunction of Trent's cohorts. This isn't a disaster on the scale of Friend, but Faxon and Rash could have done a lot better. In the end, its big dreams of becoming an instantly-identifiable coming of age flick turns into a huge opportunity missed.
The Way, Way Back wants to be 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, perhaps the best independent film of the second decade. Unfortunately, its weak plot fails to capture the true joy of summer love and the pain of family break ups, settling instead on a story that's soft on the eyes but unfulfilling on the bottom line. This is decent date night material, but don't count on anything more from it. The Way, Way Back is rated PG-13 and has a runtime of 103 minutes.
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