While it’s been a dismal summer for movies made for teenage boys (Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel), it’s been an exemplary one for films made about teenage boys. On the heels of The Kings of Summer and Mud comes The Way, Way Back, a disarming seriocomedy that will doubtless remain one of this season’s undiscovered gems.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who both won Oscars (along with Alexander Payne) for adapting 2011’s best movie, the Hawaiian-set The Descendants, again head to the beach with this piece centered around 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), an awkward, introverted kid who’s forced to spend his vacation trapped in a summer home with his caring mom Pam (Toni Collette) and her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Pam doesn’t see that Trent is cruel to her son (he tells the lad that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he rates a 3), and Trent’s teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) doesn’t treat Duncan much better. But his misery is alleviated by the presence of the sweet girl next door, a teen named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and especially by the unexpected friendship of Owen, a laid-back, wisecracking employee at the nearby Water Wizz water park.
As a coming-of-age tale, The Way, Way Back doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s never less than entertaining, marked by some amusing interludes and a sympathetic performance by the young James. Its most inspired stroke is having Carell play the loathsome jerk and Sam Rockwell the decent guy, a nice reversal of expectations.
And if you want to see the guys responsible for this low-key winner, that’s Faxon as Owen’s perpetually grinning co-worker Roddy and Rash as his perpetually complaining co-worker Lewis.