The Way Way Back written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Sycamore Pictures, The Walsh Company, OddLot Entertainment, PG-13, 103 min)
Starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, and Liam James.
Form and Function
There’s something safe in form and function. When we listen to music, we expect a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. When we read fiction, we want to see character development and a plot with climax and resolution. There’s nothing wrong with a formula—the structure offers unified expectations to an audience. It means no surprises; it suggests a contract between creator and audience where both parties agree to go down the same path.
But the tried-and-true also means a safe story. It’s possible the steady structure means a boring story. Simply put, it’s incredibly difficult to excel when remaining within the cookie cutter. But when done right, magic happens.
Sadly, there’s no magic with The Way Way Back.
The Brooding Teenager
A comedy-drama along the lines of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back focuses on 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he goes on summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and his mom’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). A reclusive introvert who is boiling about his present circumstances, Duncan becomes frustrated about Trent’s developing relationship with his mother and his hard approach toward manufacturing a relationship with his potential stepson.
Case in point: during the car ride to Trent’s vacation beach home in Cape Cod, Trent “tries” to encourage Duncan to get out of his shell. In Trent’s estimation, Duncan is a “3-out-of-10” and Trent wants to see better from this teenager.
Upon arriving in the seaside town, Duncan discovers this place is a “Spring Break for adults.” Next-door-neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), always has a drink in hand and her teenaged, long suffering daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), emerges as a kindred spirit for Duncan.
The Way Out
Wanting nothing to do with this debaucherous community, Duncan bicycles around this seaside town. He discovers a waterpark run by Owen (Sam Rockwell) and Duncan is drawn to the low-key style of the waterpark employees. After a couple of days, Owen offers Duncan a job and an opportunity to become something outside of the festering difficulties at home.
What happens next is the typical coming of age story.
Exposing the Flaws
Even though there’s nothing inherently awful about The Way Way Back, the film never rises above adequate, and that’s its Achilles’ heel. The performances, especially from Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell, buoy the film. The comedic breaks are legitimately funny.
But too often the dialogue seemed forced, as if the writers were trying too hard to be Wes Anderson.
Additionally, the casting of Steve Carell as a bad guy didn’t work. The generally all-around funny man doesn’t fit as an obstreperous wanna-be father figure. Steve Carell works hard to succeed at the role but his acting history makes him difficult to believe as an antagonist.
In the end, The Way Way Back never rises above the safety of form and function and it suffers for it. If you want a quirky comedy-drama, look toward Juno or Little Miss Sunshine.
Verdict: 3 out of 5