When Duncan, a quiet, awkward adolescent, is upset that his mother ditched him to smoke weed with her jerky boyfriend, Susanna, the literal girl-next-door, commiserates: "That's the power of this place" – referring to their small town summer retreat – "It's like a spring break for adults."
It's a nice flip in an otherwise conventional summer coming-of-age saga. In "The Way, Way Back," the parents run away to make reckless decisions – which include infidelity, neglect, heavy drinking and grinding to questionable '80s rock – and leave the kids to pick up the pieces. Otherwise, the film travels the familiar territory of a boy learning to become a man against the backdrop of family strife and the long summer sun. But a colorful cast and a breezy setting – much of it taking place in an antiquated water park – lighten up what could have been a somber tale of familial dysfunction wrought by divorce, making "The Way, Way Back" a pleasant ride.
The title refers to the back of a family station wagon – the seat that is in the "way back," facing the back window – where Duncan (Liam James) sits when dragged by Pam, his mom (Toni Colette), her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) and his surly daughter, Stephanie (Zoe Levin), to Trent's beach home for the summer. Duncan also feels like he has been given the back seat to his mother's relationship with Trent, who is an unrelenting bully. Trent is the type of guy who asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to 10, then cuts Duncan's estimate of himself – a modest 6 – by half. Stephanie has no sympathy for Duncan's plight; she's too busy sneaking beers and chasing surfer boys. Pam, meanwhile, though sweet and only holding the best intentions, is blinded to Trent's bad behavior by her desire to create a new family for Duncan.
Abandoned by his mom for Trent and their rambunctious double-date partners (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), Duncan finds a new family working at a local water park – amusingly named "Water Wizz" – where Owen (Sam Rockwell), a goofball employee, takes Duncan under his wing.
Owen rules his water park roost like a summer class clown, speaking almost entirely in comic "bits," as he calls them, and avoiding seriousness altogether. His big brother relationship with Duncan is as much about teaching him to let loose as it is about Duncan earning a sense of responsibility to impress his coworker Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), a romantic interest. They are joined on staff by two other goofballs (Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, also the director-writer duo behind the film), who play off Owen well.
Considering the tense relationship between the film's main characters, "The Way, Way Back" finds a lot of humor in its side shows. Betty (Allison Janney), the divorcee mother to Suzanne (AnnaSophia Robb) and Trent's kooky neighbor, has some of the film's best lines, making fun of her younger son's (River Alexander) lazy eye, her older's son (Jeffrey Ryan) Grateful Dead affinities and her ex-husband's lack of sexual prowess – that is, when she's not sucking down margaritas.
It's hard to imagine that Carell – known for characters who are benevolent to the point of sheepishness – can play such a jerk. His performance is certainly a testament to his versatility, but also knocks you over the head at times – a little ambiguity would have been appreciated. James plays Duncan's journey from misery to the point of immobilization, to a burgeoning sense of self, with respectful restraint. The rest of the cast's performances are similarly on point.
"The Way, Way Back" succeeds because it doesn't try to be something it's not. Its many comedic moments – particularly Janney's and Rockwell's performance – may be easy shots, but bring charm and joy to otherwise weighty themes. And its resolution, though expected, is nonetheless delightful to watch. It's not reinventing the wheel – or in this case, the water slide – but "The Way, Way Back" is certainly having a fun time enjoying the ride.