“The Way Way Back” knows exactly what it wants to be and it succeeds at it perfectly. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also had writing duties on Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” it tells a story about the pain caused by split up parents, loneliness, and unfaithfulness. It is also a very funny story about finding unlikely friends and young love. Faxon and Nash expertly direct a great cast while managing to cover all of the different emotions experienced by their characters.
Further proving he can stretch beyond comedy, Steve Carell plays Trent, the new boyfriend of recently divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette). Along with Pam’s son Duncan (Liam James) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) they are going to spend the summer at Trent’s beach house in an attempt to grow closer as a potential family. Awfully nice of Trent, except for the fact it becomes clear very quickly he is an utter d-bag. Duncan can see it because Trent never misses an opportunity to belittle him, but Pam is obliviously because she wants a new chance at love.
For Duncan this looks like it’s going to be one long and dreadful summer. Steph only wants to hang around with her vapid friends and even more vapid boyfriend at the beach. The grown-ups are not much help either. Trent and Pam are having a great time hanging out with Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Cordry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), but while they laugh it up at the dinner table Duncan cannot wait to be dismissed so he can retreat into his head. The one person he would like to talk to is Susanna (Anna Sophia Robb) the very attractive daughter of next-door neighbor and alcohol enthusiast Betty (Allison Janney). Unfortunately Duncan lacks confidence in the girl department, like most young men, so their initial conversations are limited to the weather.
Along comes a breath a fresh air called Owen (Sam Rockwell), a fast-talking, life-loving water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing. Behaving as if he was the brother of Bill Murray’s character in “Meatballs,” Owen gives Duncan a job at the park and a much-needed boost in confidence. This guy tries to always see the bright side of life and cracks a joke every 30 seconds. Under Owen’s tutelage, Duncan finds a refuge from the stress of his family and finally begins to smile, especially once he gets the courage to talk some more to Susanna.
This is a great movie that feels very real, especially in the more dramatic scenes. When Pam begins to see Trent might not be as good as she first thought you can feel the tension building until it explodes during a party. Liam James is excellent when his character finally unleashes everything he has been holding back, and Colette holds her own as a mother who loves her son but is also in love with the wrong guy.
Striking the right balance between comedy and drama can be tricky, but Faxon and Nash do just that and everyone they are working with is in top form. Janney owns every scene she’s in as the hard-drinking Betty who is one of those characters that has no filter during conversations. As Owen, Rockwell plays the best friend you wish you had growing up, even though he himself has some growing up to do, which he realizes while trying to romance a fellow employee played by the always great Maya Rudolph.
“The Way Way Back” has plenty laughs but also a lot of heart. You feel for Duncan as he endures a terrible potential stepfather, and then you get to cheer for him as he learns to stand up for himself.
(“The Way Way Back” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is on Netflix.)