A film director once shared with me this intriguing observation: movie critics, he opined, see too many movies. Watching The Way, Way Back, co-directed and co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, his words came back to me as I found myself compiling a list of all the characteristics this movie shares with other coming-of-age- dysfunctional-family indie dramas from the last decade, including the last movie Faxon and Rash co-wrote, 2011′s The Descendants. This impulse to trace this movie’s cinematic DNA threatened my appreciation of the movie, of enjoying the experience of a story well told, so I stopped. And I’ll keep the references as to what The Way, Way Back reminded me of to a bare minimum here. It is derivative and too deliberately zany, but still a heartfelt charmer.
Uber-awkward 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) is forced to spend his summer at a Massachusetts beach house owned by the guy who is quite possibly going to be his stepfather. There are always complexities involved in melding families, but this would truly be a nightmare. Car salesman Trent (Steve Carrell) works hard to appear affable but is ever so slightly creepy and menacing, specifically toward Duncan, whom he delights in humiliating. Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette, who played Carell’s siser in Little Miss Sunshine) doesn’t see any of this. After years of being a single mother with nearly sole custody of her child, she’s just excited to feel sexy and wanted again. She looks at the world through the happy haze of someone who just had sex or might be having it again very soon, a radical departure from the single mom Collette played in About a Boy.
(READ: Time’s Q&A with Jim Rash)
Duncan leaves them still abed (you feel his unspoken gross as he goes out the door) on the first full beach day and heads off to nearby Water Wizz, a local water park (built in 1983, and never upgraded, as its employees proudly point out). There, he is quickly and rather improbably is befriended by the park’s resident underemployed smart guy, Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen gives him a job, which Duncan never tells anyone about, not even the pretty and inquisitive girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). He and Susanna cautiously bond over their shared parental dilemmas—his mom is in love and hers, Betty (Allison Janney), is an alcoholic mess filled with rage over her divorce from Susanna’s father, who turned out to be gay.
I don’t believe there is a better actress in America than Janney when it comes to portraying big-mouthed shrews. About a minute after greeting Trent and meeting Pam for the first time, Betty announces, with giddy semi-hysteria, “I’m off the wagon again. Accept it and move on.” Betty could be the offspring of Janney’s characters from Away We Go and Life during Wartime. But Faxon and Rash have written such funny and outrageous lines for the character, and Janney is so deft at delivering them that this rather awful creature ultimately becomes irresistible.
What happens at Water Wizz is a little like what happened to Jesse Eisenberg at Adventureland, although more from a more youthful perspective. Duncan is accepted, bad teeth, slouch and all (James is highly effective mostly because there’s nothing movie-star-ish about him). Thanks to Owen’s blessing—the guy is worshipped by all the local teens and tweens—Duncan actually makes friends. This community he forms with the ragtag family of semi-carnies who run the place is essential at this moment when the team Duncan been on, just a boy and his mother, appears to be slipping through his fingers. It’s agonizing to watch this kid’s pain in the face of his mother’s dwindling attention. Pam doesn’t even defend him when Trent insists he wear an enormous life jacket on a boat trip when no one else has to. The movie is not exactly an urgent affair, but what narrative drive it has comes from the hope that Pam will come to her senses instead of partying away the summer with Trent and his obnoxious married friends (played with boozy ease by Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry).
Naxon and Rash have small parts as Water Wizz employees, along with Maya Rudolph, exuding her usual sardonic aura (and not doing all that well at hiding her real life pregnancy). The energy that comes off this ensemble makes The Way, Way Back feel perhaps better than it perhaps is (it was a hit at Sundance this year, where audiences were rightly wowed by how good Carrell is at playing bad). It’s true that there is nothing particularly subtle about the plot—a fatherless boy threatened with a new “dad” finds, outside of his family, an unlikely father figure, who in turn, needs help growing up. But there are many lovely, insightful moments in The Way, Way Back, most especially the one in the last few frames, when the reason for mysterious title comes into focus. It’s likely there will be many wet eyes in the theater as the screen goes to black.
READ: Time’s review of About a Boy.