Movies like The Way, Way Back are obvious – the story is obvious, the characters are obvious, the lesson it tries to impart on the viewer is obvious, the jangly non-descript pop songs on the soundtrack are obvious, and worst of all its overwhelming sentimentality is painfully obvious. It’s the type of movie that’s meant to be light fun and injects a certain amount of frivolous morality into its dramedy, but there is a point at which a film can become so light that it’s saccharine weightlessness leaves an utterly indifferent taste in your mouth. The Way, Way Back suffers from assuming that heart and persistent emotional beats trump anything narratively substantial, and makes the mistake of thinking the audience would categorically accept that assumption too.
The film is about Duncan (Liam James), a distraught teen who is forced to go on summer vacation with his divorcée mother Pam (Toni Collette), her arrogant boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent’s daughter at his summerhouse presumably on Cape Cod or in the Hamptons. The introverted Duncan soon finds an unexpected friend and father figure in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the outgoing and naïve manager of the local water park who tries to show Duncan the ways of the world and who teaches him to open up – especially with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the neighbor’s daughter.
The basic framework of a possibly intriguing, yet clichéd story is there—the angsty teen who unexpectedly finds his place in the world and becomes a better person because of it—but the excessive emotion forced on the audience makes the schmaltzy plot a bit too heavy-handed. Liam James’ absolutely wooden acting doesn’t help things much as his dull range is basically sad/mopey to even sadder/mopey, and his lines are delivered with an annoying pubescent mousiness that gets on your nerves when it’s supposed to really make you sympathize with his character. Rockwell is there just going through the motions, basically playing an even goofier version of what I expect is just his normal personality, and Carrell is a bizarre choice for the bullying antagonist. I guess it’s meant to show his range, but it just reeks of his friends who made the movie calling in a favor for him to make an appearance. The normally talented Toni Collette is wasted as well as she spends the majority of the movie crying over everything, while AnnaSophia Robb’s hollow character’s only traits are that she’s cute and that she occasionally listens to Duncan whine about his problems.
Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash—who won an Oscar for their script for Alexander Payne’s The Descendants—show a basic understanding of direction and framing but nothing more than that. It makes it clear the two should stick to writing and leave the directing duties to more inventive and competent minds like Payne to give their vision an actual sense of reality. It’s evident that the two attempted to imbue some sort of directorial flair between the summerhouse scenes and the water park scenes, shifting the tone to portray Duncan’s varying emotions, but each relocation is handled with such clumsy highs and lows that the choppy pace muddles the movie even further. By the time the meaningless ending came around with its awkward metaphor involving Rockwell and James going on one of the water park slides at the same time, I just gave up altogether.
The poster for The Way, Way Back says it’s from the same studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, making an explicit connection between the three. Yet where the other two movies were able to essentially balance their tear-jerking corniness with purposeful emotional character journeys, The Way, Way Back’s skeletal understanding of these vital details makes it quite an unfortunate misfire.