In the movies there are as many was to come of age as there are kids to mature into adulthood. Teen wizards fight dark lords, young rock writers have their heart broken by sad groupies, Parisian boys turn to crime and a girl named Baby does “The Lift” with a camp dance teacher.
“The Way, Way Back,” a new comedy starring Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and Canadian actor Liam James, sets the story in a beach resort where a kid is trapped in a world of adults. It doesn’t add anything new to the coming-of-age genre, but what it does, it does really well.
Duncan (James) would rather spend the summer break with his father in California, but instead is headed to a New England beach town with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Carell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin). The place is “like Spring Break for adults,” which doesn’t leave much room for Duncan to enjoy himself.
He’s an introverted fourteen-year-old, who can’t stand Trent’s condescending attitude or the change in his mother when she is around him. The summer becomes bearable, however, when he meets Owen (Rockwell), the free-spirited owner of Water Wizz, a local water park.
“The Way, Way Back” has a number of characters best described as “quirky.” Movies like this frequently rely on an artificially created sense of eccentricity to mask weaknesses in the storytelling, but when the actors involved are as good as the cast here, a few kooky characters are welcome.
Surprisingly Carell gives one of the least quirky performances of his career. As Trent he is cold and controlling, the kind of guy who treats Duncan like an add-on to his relationship. He calls the boy “Buddy.” as if he can’t remember his name, and after every pronouncement says, “Am I right?” It’s a quiet, nicely realized villainous performance that will help erase the image of nice-guy Michael Scott from viewer’s minds.
Collette also does solid, down-to-earth work alongside Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry as he loud, goodtime neighbors, and AnnaSophia Robb as the cute, sensitive girl next door.
Liam James also does a nice job as a teen who admits, “There’s not much for me at home,” and takes the initiative to make his life better.
The performances you will remember when you leave the theatre, however, belong to Allison Janney and Rockwell.
Janney, as the drunk, tag-along neighbor storms into the movie like a wild sea squall.
“I’m drinking again,” she announces. “Accept it and move on.”
It’s a big performance that requires her to deliver lines like, “That’s exactly the kind of bathing suit that got me pregnant the first time,” and while she is a caricature of the loud mouthed person you never want to sit next to at the regatta, she is expert in her delivery.
As man-child Owen, Rockwell is a fast-talking loser who has probably watched “Animal House” one too many times. Prone to doling out Bueller-esque life lessons like “Go your own way” and “Don’t die wondering,” he provides some real heart and becomes a satisfying component of the movie’s would-be father and son story.
Less nuanced is Louis (Jim Rash) who mans the bathing suit rental booth at the park. He’s quirky for quirk’s sake, but Rash is a master of the deadpan, and it works.
“The Way, Way Back” is more than just another study of awkward teen behavior. It’s a sweet movie with genuine laughs and despite the occasional bigger than life performances, is remarkably down to earth.