Sometimes all it takes is one summertime friend to change a hopeless wallflower into a confident cool guy. And that’s what happens to Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old so insecure he’s completely inarticulate. But what is most enjoyable about The Way, Way Back (aside from the mentions of Albany as a put-down) isn’t Duncan’s comedic coming-of-age, but the casting, including the casting of co-directors and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rush. Both play employees of an out-of-date water park, and it’s at Water Wizz, a water-slide world unto itself, that the thoughtful script hits its comic stride.
Before Duncan discovers the park, he is driven up the wall by his mother’s new boyfriend, unctuous, controlling Trent (an impressively repellent Steve Carell). Duncan and his timid mother, Pam (Toni Collette), are on summer vacation at a beachhouse with Trent and his daughter (Zoe Levin, terrific as a send-up of a trendoid teen queen), where they are besieged by the neighbors; there is Betty, a boisterous lush (Allison Janney), and Joan (Amanda Peet), whose sociable advances hide a catty agenda. “It’s like spring break for adults,” says Betty’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), who serves as a plot device for Duncan’s self-esteem.
Janney practically somersaults overboard trying to make her sardonic character more hilarious, and Collette noticeably strains while laying on the sentiment (though she does achieve some quieter moments of recognizable pathos). Faxon and Rush, the Oscar-winning co-adapters of Alexander Payne’s The Descendents, are less adept on their own at mixing comedy with family dysfunction—Pam is newly divorced—perhaps because they were more concerned with the film’s low-key realism than letting the Candyland markers fall where they may.
But when Duncan flees the beachhouse on a kiddy bike, he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a Water Wizz supervisor and struggling comedian, who takes him under his wing and shows him the way to amusement-park mastery and summertime fun. A very engaging and well-written role, Owen is almost upstaged by his best bud (Faxon), a slacker water-slide attendant. Both characters seem to have studied the Bill Murray playbook, to their mutual advantage. Adding to the park’s amusement is Rash as a dweeby equipment-booth attendant, whose booth no one ever goes to, and Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids) lending nimble straight-man support as Owen’s yearly fling, the park’s manager. In fact, this loose ensemble of comedic actors make The Way, Way Back so much fun, that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the movie boosted job applications to theme parks just as much as Top Gun did for flight schools.