After a rocky, strident beginning, “The Way, Way Back” straightens itself into a pretty darn lovable movie, which also has the honor of giving a decidedly dark and against-type role to funnyman Steve Carell. Carell plays Trent, the verbally abusive, passive-aggressive boyfriend of needy Pam (Toni Collette.) The abuse perpetrated by Trent is not directed towards Pam but towards her self-conscious 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James.)
Duncan is in that awkward stage of youth where just about every phrase uttered by him is monosyllabic and he’s at a loss to talk to anyone, especially girls. Trent is frequently hostile and bullying but plays nice in front of Pam, who doesn’t seem to notice the behavior. Trent takes Pam, Duncan, and Duncan’s bitchy daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin) (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I suppose) to vacation home for the summer.
Surrounded by unbearable adults, including an alcohol-guzzling floozy (Allison Janney) and Trent’s insufferable friends (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry,) angst-ridden Duncan loiters at the theme park Water Whizz, and is befriended by the park’s wise-cracking manager Owen (Sam Rockwell.) Owen recognizes a kid in need of support in Duncan and offers him a job. The summer proves to be empowering and life-changing for Duncan, who even falls in love for the first, with the floozy neighbor’s attractive and similarly disaffected daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb.)
The beginning scenes are a little bit on the overcooked side, as we are introduced to an assortment of dingy grown-up’s, each with the apparent identical goal of making Duncan’s life as awkward as possible. It’s hard to believe anyone could be this stupid, or at least with such a lack of subtlety, even Kip and Joan, who we are led to believe are incessantly high.
There is a definite improvement in storytelling and substance about thirty minutes in, when Duncan breaks away from Trent’s asinine friends and neighbors and starts spending a numerable amount of afternoons with Owen. Owen might be a bit childish and hedonistic, but he’s exactly what Duncan needs to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence.
Owen also knows that strictly verbal abuse can be as harmful as physical blows, and he tries to help Duncan move past Trent’s taunts. Duncan’s conversations with Susanna are cute not because of what he says but because of what he doesn’t say, which is basically anything of discernible value. So paralyzed by shyness is Duncan that he is reduced to mumbling “I guess” and “I dunno” and babbling about the weather. We’ve all been there, but what makes the duo so charming is that the incredibly patient Susanna still likes Duncan, still LIKE likes him, not I-want-to-go-to-the-movies-as-friends likes him. For a kid who barely even likes himself, that’s a small miracle.
“The Way, Way Back” might have a little bit of the “Juno” syndrome, where witticisms are a bit too pithy to be natural (nevertheless, haters, I still love “Juno”) and the script might have some sitcom-y moments, but it is still a charming coming-of-age story for those whose movie tastes run toward the quirky and the droll.. There should certainly be more Owens in the word, who can see the good and the worthy in the most gawky adolescent. If that were the case, my teen years might have been a Hell of a lot less miserable.