Sometimes, the smartest thing filmmakers can do is stick with the formula.
By LOEY LOCKERBY
Special to The Star
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote and directed The Way, Way Back, realize they have a pretty standard coming-of-age story here. Instead of loading it up with twists and quirks, they focus on elements like character, dialogue and atmosphere the things that really matter.
Like many teenagers, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is a mass of surliness and social anxiety. His divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), has taken up with a new boyfriend named Trent (Steve Carell) who bonds with his buddy Duncan by constantly criticizing and humiliating him.
They head to Trents Cape Cod beach house for the summer, and Duncans discomfort worsens with each new person he meets. At least the drunk, inappropriate neighbor (Allison Janney) has a cute daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) who will actually talk to him.
That still doesnt make the visit bearable, but things change when Duncan stumbles upon Water Wizz, a water park managed (sort of) by easygoing slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell). He and Duncan strike up a friendship, which pulls the kid out of his adolescent funk and gives him the confidence to start standing up for himself.
Theres something lonely about a town that has seasons, and its a perfect environment for Duncan, who seems only half-lived-in himself. Although its a little rundown, Water Wizz (an actual park in East Wareham) gives Duncan a chance to have uncomplicated fun with people who care about him and know how to show it.
James is very likable, in spite of Duncans misery, and Rockwell steals the show with a steady stream of zany and probably improvised dialogue. Owen is the kind of guy who would rather join the kids on the waterslide than actually work, but hes also caring and funny, unlike most of the adults in Duncans life.
Even the less sympathetic characters have their moments, including Trent. Hes a passive-aggressive jerk and expects everyone to thank him for it, calling Duncan a 3 as a twisted way of encouraging self-improvement. He cant hide his own insecurity, though, and Carells performance is a clever inversion of his goofy-loser comedic style.
Faxon and Rash won an Oscar for adapting The Descendants (and have supporting roles in this film, their directing debut), so its no surprise that their script is full of warmth and offbeat humor. They dont glamorize teen angst, but they understand it and the adult dysfunction that always seems to make it worse.
The characters in The Way, Way Back end up exactly where we expect them to, and its a genuine pleasure to watch them get there.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Palace and Studio 30.)