By Sonny Bunch
“The Way Way Back” opens with a slightly difficult scene that sets the tone for much of what’s to follow.
On a drive to the beach, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is interrogated by his mother’s middle-aged boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent wants to know how Duncan sees himself on a scale of one to 10. Duncan demurs, then throws out “Six?” Trent laughs, tells him he’s a three, and suggests he works on spending the summer bringing that number up.
The most difficult part of that scene, we come to realize as the film goes along, is that for all the cues we’re given — Mr. Carell is wearing bad-guy stubble; we see his eyes through the rearview mirror; we see how the judgment crushes Duncan — Trent is largely right.
“The Way Way Back’s” greatest strength — and its greatest weakness — is that it does not shy away from its teenage lead’s awkwardness. He isn’t funny-awkward like Napoleon Dynamite or cute-awkward like Michael Cera, but awkward-awkward, like the kid in the front of the bus with the stooped shoulders who can’t keep eye contact because his interactions with human beings have been so few and far between.
It imbues the picture with a sense of realism. We all knew someone like Duncan growing up; many of us have a little Duncan in ourselves. And it lends a real sense of triumph to the picture as Duncan slowly emerges from his shell.
But this type of unvarnished awkwardness is uncomfortable to watch, especially when you begin to realize that Trent isn’t far off in his assessment (even if he could have delivered the news with a little more kindness). Duncan does need to get out there and meet new people.
Helping him in this endeavor is Owen (Sam Rockwell), the carefree, happy-go-lucky manager of a local waterpark who takes a shine to Duncan and hires him on for the summer. Owen gives him a shot of confidence, helps build up his woefully undeveloped sense of humor and teaches him that life is what you make of it.
If this sounds a little formulaic, well, there’s a reason for that. “The Way Way Back” falls firmly in that tried-and-true indie genre of the awkward kid made cool. There is the requisite cast of kooky characters to accompany Duncan and company: the drunk neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney, who tries a bit too hard); Betty’s lazy-eyed son Peter (River Alexander); and the over-sexed Joan and over-served Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), a couple whose boat causes a bit of trouble.
Such a formula is by no means a bad thing — in a summer replete with massive explosions and computer generated images as far as the eye can see, it’s nice to see something smaller and real(ish). “The Way Way Back” isn’t a genre-busting triumph, but it’s a pleasing, if occasionally uncomfortable, experience.
TITLE: “The Way Way Back”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
RATING: PG-13 (thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material)
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS