Dragged away on vacation, awkward 14-year-old Duncan (James) is forced to spend the summer with his mother (Collette) and her partner Trent (Carell) at the latter’s New England beach-house. Though lonely and unhappy to begin with, things improve for Duncan when he meets and befriends Owen (Rockwell), the charismatic, man-child manager of the local water-park…
As a family-trip dramedy that features Steve Carell and Toni Collette, The Way, Way Back has inevitably drawn comparisons with indie darling Little Miss Sunshine. In actual fact, however, it’s far more reminiscent of fellow coming-of-age yarn Adventureland, given that both use theme park settings to tell similar stories over the course of a nostalgic summer season. Though not quite as enjoyable, this Sundance-flavoured charmer proves likeable enough in its own right, thanks in large part to Sam Rockwell’s film-pinching turn as the laid-back park boss who takes Duncan under his wing. Moreover, co-writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash deserve credit for avoiding cheap laughs (although some of the lazy-eye gags could be labelled as such), opting for an understated tale that is loosely based on the latter’s real-life experiences. That said, each character arc is broadly predictable from the start, while Duncan is a little too passive and frustrating for his own good. This isn’t to say Liam James is poor, mind you, as he offers an accurate depiction of an awkward teenager. It’s just that we simply don’t see enough of Duncan’s virtues, while the film never really explains to us what Owen sees in him. Still, both Steve Carell and Toni Collette are typically impressive – the former especially, playing very much against type – while Allison Janney steals scenes aplenty as the boozy next-door neighbour.
Though not quite as enjoyable as Adventureland, The Way, Way Back is likeable enough as a low-key, Sundance-flavoured charmer. The central character is arguably too wallflower-y for his own good, but Rockwell keeps us entertained whenever he’s on screen.