Low on voltage yet quite likable, “The Way, Way Back” is a coming-of-age dramedy that qualifies both as a worthy addition to the genre catalog and as a modest summer movie. Its overall charm and sense of fun merit attention among bigger-bang but surprisingly joyless current fare.
There's nothing new about a story in which a frustrated teen copes with a rotten father figure or learns about life from a colorfully flawed mentor. But with its splendid cast, engaging tone and (sometimes literally) immersing setting, this semi-indie presents the recipe winningly and memorably.
Filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote (with Alexander Payne) the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Descendants,” have, in this directorial debut, created a less affecting but enjoyable film that suggests a lighter version of “Adventureland” blended with any of several 1980s comedies featuring “Saturday Night Live” alums.
“Little Miss Sunshine”-style eccentricity (two of its stars are aboard) also figures in.
The story begins inside a station wagon, where inhibited, awkward 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is dreading the summer vacation he's about to spend with his caring but distracted mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and Pam's horrid boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell).
In a defining scene, Trent ranks Duncan a three on a scale of one to 10.
Miserable at Trent's Massachusetts beach house, where the adults are partying with friends, Duncan finds relief in his conversations with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the sweet teenage daughter of boozy, effusive neighbor Betty (Allison Janney).
More significantly, he finds a friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the perpetually joking but supportive slacker who manages the water park. Owen gives Duncan a job, and through adventures experienced with offbeat water-park staffers, Duncan comes alive and proves Trent's assessment of him enormously wrong.
Novel, this story isn't. Nor do the filmmakers deliver the depth of “Mud” or the emotional resonance of “Terri” as coming-of-age tales go. The supporting characters often suffer from inadequate development.
But the film contains lots to embrace, and the grand total is hard to resist. Its dream cast helps counteract the shortcomings and juices things up vibrantly. Janney's Betty and Rockwell's Owen are knockouts.
The film's gentle tone, meanwhile, goes down sweetly in these days of the raunchfest.
The water-park setting, where people flock despite the nearby presence of a real ocean, gives the film additional appeal as a serving of weird Americana. A water-slide mishap and employee shenanigans provide amusing site-specific quirk.
Maya Rudolph, playing a colleague Owen has feelings for, and the filmmakers themselves, playing employees who have clearly worked at the park too long, enrich the picture.
The Way, Way Back
With Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Liam James
Written and directed by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes