The familiar, straight-forward coming-of-age narrative generally advances along a forwardly progressing path toward self-realization rather than on a slide down a back road. In spite of its aims at building a sweetly poignant facade, The Way, Way Back detours its caricatured characters toward an unfortunately cyclical fate. Oscar-winning scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash venture out on this road in their directorial debut, which is a worthy first effort, but not nearly the darkly comedic success that their Alexander Payne-directed The Descendents (2011) is. While definite traces of the same type of situationally inappropriate humor exist, the direction lacks a finite consistency to make the story effectively and uniquely memorable.
The Way, Way Back follows the awkwardly introverted 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he’s forced on a summer getaway with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her condescendingly patronizing boyfriend Trent (Stevel Carell). At Trent’s seaside summer home where they’ll be staying and experimenting with living as a family, Duncan, who would rather be with his father in San Diego, finds himself terribly miserable among Trent’s obnoxious and ridiculous friends and neighbors, played by Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, and Rob Corddry. He ventures out of the house to explore the town and discovers Water Wizz, a local water park, where he meets the hilariously immature park manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), and the other colorful crew that work there, played by Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash. Owen offers Duncan a job for the summer at the park, which he gladly accepts. Working at the park quickly becomes Duncan’s only source of happiness as he gradually grows more comfortable with himself and asserts himself in other areas of his life. At home, he befriends the neighbor’s daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and stands up for himself against the monumental jerk Trent. When he reveals to his mother that Trent is a deceptive liar and a phony, they cut their trip short and pack up to head back home, regardless of Duncan’s wishes to stay for the remainder of the summer.
Though this story is clearly intended to be charming and evocative of empathy, there are a lot of missed opportunities to make it convincingly so. Its overly exaggerated character tropes make for much of the comedic effect shouldering the entertainment value of the film, but the obvious laughs come at the cost of the characters not connecting with one another to their full potential. The humor is often-times too deliberate and ends up feeling like everyone is practicing their own stand-up routines, while making the mistake of disengaging their audience. Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell are easily the funniest (and perhaps most likeable) characters, but even they’re a bit much sometimes, in the way their fast-paced quips leave little room for interjection from anyone else. And while Steve Carell succeeds in generating a great deal of disdain for his one-dimensionally patronizing portrayal of Trent, the character is so deliberately against-type that it’s difficult to be comfortable with him in the role. Because they’re champions of their individual brands of ridiculousness, the characters (especially the adults) are so blatantly out-of-touch with each other and their surroundings, making them objects of ridicule instead of living embodiments of flaws in human relationships. They essentially function as relentlessly obnoxious intrusions on Duncan’s introversion.
The most frustrating disconnect is Duncan’s mother’s flagrant disregard and negligence for his obvious misery, especially after she knows the truth about Trent but continues to subject herself and her son to her poor decisions. Just when she potentially shows signs of finally asserting herself and protecting her son, she again disappoints by dragging them both along in her unhealthy desperation. While all the absurdity of his environment makes Duncan all the more worthy of sympathy, he’s a kid we’ve seen so many times before in this familiar genre (think Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower). He’s just too pathetic to even feel sorry for, and though we’re meant to believe he’s fundamentally changed by his experiences at the water park, he’s essentially forced to revert back into his own miserable existence by the end.
Owen is obviously the intended source of Duncan’s transformation, but their budding friendship is actually a lost opportunity for more involvement in each others’ lives. Since their separate worlds never intersect, Duncan and Owen never really know one another and the brevity of their time spent together isn’t convincingly complicit in the apparent change Duncan undergoes. While Owen clearly perceives troubles in Duncan’s life, they only barely skim the surface presumably to avoid taking a too-serious turn, which would, however, help the believability of their relationship. At the one moment where their worlds meet at the very end, there’s a lingering feeling that Owen may insist on some grand clichéd gesture, like offering to take care of Duncan, the opportunity for him to exert his influence slips away as Duncan is forced to accept his mother’s decision.
The comedic merit in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s screenplay is certainly its highest point, but the film as a whole falls short of depicting a truly transformative experience for an impressionable adolescent. The lagging pace in some places strings together disconnected sequences in an inconsistent manner, pinpointing the direction and editing as potential points of improvement. Because the characters are fairly exaggerated caricatures running on a wheel powered by their own energies, there’s no real opportunity for significantly life-altering interactions between them. Lacking the seemingly necessary bit of poignant human connection is the difference between making Duncan’s story unfortunately painful rather than sweet. Even though it’ll probably be well-received by audiences and critics alike, since there’s nothing so blatantly divisive or off-putting about it, it doesn’t whole-heartedly measure up to its intended charm. (An Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay might still be a long-shot). By the end of the film, the question begs, “way, way back to where exactly?”
Fox Searchlight Pictures will release the film on July 5, 2013.