I had to choose this weekend between seeing “Wolverine” — which opened everywhere — or “The Way, Way Back,” a low-budget movie I had to scramble to find. Being basically blockbustered out before the kids are even back in school, I chose the latter. Smart move, as it turned out, for this is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a while. Staying pretty much within the “coming of age” formula, first time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash build upon the success they had in winning an Oscar for the adapted screenplay of “The Descendants.”
The film’s title refers to the back, rear-facing seat in a big old Buick station wagon in which the story’s central figure, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) sits glowering as the film opens. His divorcée mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is sleeping in the front while his would-be stepfather, Trent (Steve Carrell), is driving. When Trent asks Duncan how he would rate himself on a one to ten scale, Duncan replies, “Six.” But car salesman Trent won’t give him even this level of mediocrity, declaring Duncan a “Three” and chiding him for not really being out there, just hanging around the house. He urges him to assert himself more as they head for Trent’s beach house, “Riptide.”
Indeed, things are about to take a drastic turn for Duncan, who gets out of the house and into a summer job at Water Wizz, a rundown amusement park loosely managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell). The fast-talking, irresponsible older guy makes the most unlikely mentor you can imagine, but he’s just what Duncan needs. By the time of the climactic July 4th party, Duncan is ready to claim his independence.
On the way to this somewhat clichéd moment — but not to the expected outcome — Rash and Faxon’s screenplay keeps us consistently amused, as do some wonderful performances by Rockwell and Allison Janney as Trent’s lush of a next-door neighbor, Betty. These two in particular strike a perfect balance between their characters’ humor and the inherent pathos of Duncan’s situation. In another effective performance and playing against type, Carrell gives us a bully and hypocrite whose tryst with another neighbor, Joan (Amanda Peet), confirms Duncan’s suspicion that Trent is not “in this together” with Pam, his phony pitches notwithstanding.
For his part, Rockwell gives the movie its special energy, flawlessly delivering his zingers and one-liners to Duncan and to the others in a solid supporting cast that includes directors Rash and Faxon. Their first film has some flaws, not surprisingly. A couple of important scenes feel forced, and both involve big turns in Duncan’s view of the world he has to operate in. There is also a curious theme of nostalgia for the 80s which never quite gets explained in a film about getting pointed forward.
The film’s closing shot strongly recalls its opening one, but with some crucial differences in the characters’ positioning and development. It is neat, clever, and just enough of a surprise to satisfy. We know that Duncan has made the necessary shift towards adulthood: the formula is completed but pleasingly so.
“The Way, Way Back” is rated “PG-13” for language, some sexual content, and some drug use (pot). As opposed to the overhyped, over budgeted, overlong “4’s” which have dominated the big screen this season, I’d give this one a “9.” Try to see it before it leaves the theater by summer’s end. If you can’t find it, don’t miss the DVD.