“The Way, Way Back,” opening Friday, covers all the right ground for a coming-of-age comedy, occasionally with more wisdom than it leads you to expect. It follows a familiar, feel-good formula so fluently that you’ll only realize in retrospect how smoothly it moves from predictable to perceptive territory. This marks the directorial debut for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of “The Descendants.” Like that film, this is a family bonding story that’s formulaic but still a little off the beaten path.
Our hero, Duncan (Liam James), is supposedly suffering from a solitary teenage existence, but you wouldn’t figure that from how crowded this story gets. In the beginning, he’s carted along for a beach house vacation with his diffident mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her surly new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), who waits until Pam is asleep to tell Duncan that, on a scale of one to 10, he’s “a three.”
They arrive and are immediately bothered by a belligerent, hard-drinking neighbor (Allison Janney of “The West Wing”). Amanda Peet and Rob Corrdry also show up as neighbors, who don’t serve any purpose I can remember. Realizing quickly that the adults aren’t for him, Duncan saves his sad small talk skills for Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a teenage neighbor and soon-to-be crush.
Duncan bums around for a few days, sitting on the beach in jeans and hiding his resentment for Trent, until he discovers Water Wizz, a nearby amusement park. There, he’s taken under the wing of the wisecracking manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who initiates him into the park’s crew, including Owen’s impatient girlfriend (Maya Rudolph) and two lackeys, played by directors Faxon and Rash. Duncan doesn’t care if he has to clean up vomit and break up fights for his day job; Water Wizz is the first place he belongs.
Got all that? You’ll probably wish that your life was this busy when you were a mopey 14-year-old. For the first half of “The Way, Way Back,” you can be like Duncan and just space out with your head down, as the film keeps adding comic conventions that feel like they were jammed in by an overbearing screenwriting professor.
But after the film gets through the routine of its mildly amusing setup, it finally finds a focus and a backbone. The romance subplot with Susanna all but disappears, the unnecessary neighbors fall by the wayside and we’re left to reconcile the two transformations in Duncan’s life: his increasingly tense family life and his increasingly enticing escape at Water Wizz.
Trent’s bitterness moves beyond Duncan and starts infecting the entire family, culminating in a remarkably, almost painfully uncomfortable scene in which an attempted family night devolves into the most contentious Candy Land game in history. The Water Wizz gang, meanwhile, captures the summertime promise of freedom and friendship. The park is run by a bunch of 30-somethings struggling with their own arrested development, and as Duncan is indoctrinated in their juvenile rituals and pranks, it’s hard to resist the charm of his inclusion. As is the case in “Adventureland” – the greatest film about being young and sad in the summer – it’s great to feel like we’re wasting a few hot and sticky days with these losers.
Through it all, three of the many performers are constant delights: James, who carries the heavy burden of an insecure teenhood and then carefully pushes past it; Rockwell, who works a comforting middle ground between mentor and man-child; and Carell, in a rare play against type, as a villain hiding behind a vacation house and a nice, but cracking, facade.
“The Way, Way Back” eventually finds the right balance between family drama and summer escapism, with Water Wizz finally giving Duncan his much-needed confidence boost. Nothing happens here that you wouldn’t expect, but the conclusion is subtly bold, in its acknowledgement that a few weeks at Water Wizz aren’t enough to solve Duncan’s deeper family issues. The steps that he takes out of his shell, though, make for an inviting journey. The film, wisely, avoids easy answers to adolescent anguish. Hang on through the lame beginning, and at the way, way end, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
the way, way back
Starring: Liam James, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Running time: 103 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, profanity, some sexual content and brief drug material.
The Lowdown: A moody 14-year-old buries his resentment for his mom’s surly boyfriend during a vacation, but finds an escape when he starts working at a nearby amusement park.