One of those Sundance Festival buzz films that seem more ordinary at lower altitudes, The Way Way Back was written and directed by actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, before they won an adapted-screenplay Oscar, along with Alexander Payne, for The Descendants. If its tone echoes that 2011 film, it also echoes many other absurd-sentimental American indie dramedies.
Like Little Miss Sunshine (Sundance 2006), the movie stars Toni Collette and Steve Carell in a story about a dysfunctional family trip, though like Adventureland (Sundance 2009), it’s really about a teenager finding acceptance at a local theme park. We first meet 14-year-old introvert Duncan (Liam James) riding in the back of a family station wagon en route to a Cape Cod vacation, along with his mom Pam (Collette), her domineering new boyfriend Trent (Carell) and his sulky daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). As a kind of sadistic driving game, Trent insists that Duncan rate himself out of 10 and when Duncan half-heartedly suggests a “six,” Trent corrects him: No, more like a three.
While Trent is a jerk, Duncan’s mother Pam is a weak, needy enabler, and the vacation, which a neighbour describes as “spring break for adults,” is hell for the teenagers. Trent and Pam booze, furtively smoke dope and flirt with a neighbour couple (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet). Allison Janney, the alcoholic mom of Susanna, a pretty, sad girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb), mocks her young son (River Alexander) for his lazy eye, in a mean-spirited running gag.
Duncan eventually finds solace in a local theme park, Water Wizz, where the resident Peter Pan figure is Owen (Sam Rockwell). A quip-happy character in the laid-back, Bill Murray mode, Owen takes Duncan under his wing. The park employees include Maya Rudolph as the mother-hen supervisor, writer-directors Faxon and Rash as a pervy water-slide operator and an ultra-arch souvenir salesman, respectively. They not only embrace Duncan, they make him a star; when he shows a minimal aptitude for break-dancing, they give him the nickname Pop ’n’ Lock.
The film is awash in safe choices, from indie-pop-accompanied montages to sitcom one-liners and black-and-white characters. Neither Carell’s against-type nastiness or Rockwell’s more familiar sarcastic slacker are given enough context to make the characters complete. Duncan may have found new inner resources, but as a movie, The Way Way Back still feels way underdeveloped.