‘The Way, Way Back’ is the summer movie you may forget

Liam James plays a depressed teenager in "The Way Way Back." Credit: Claire Folger
Liam James plays a depressed teenager in “The Way Way Back.”
Credit: Claire Folger

‘The Way, Way Back’
Directors: Jim Rash and Nat Faxon
Stars: Liam James, Sam Rockwell
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Jim Rash, who plays semi-ambiguously gay, cross-dressing Dean Pelton on “Community,” and Nat Faxon, who appears in the comedies of Broken Lizard, are both Oscar winners. That’s because they wrote the somber, thoughtful script for “The Descendants.” Neither fact is what you might expect. That they wrote and made their joint directorial debut with “The Way, Way Back” makes more sense. The film’s description reads like a parody: It’s a “summer I’ll never forget” indie with an overqualified cast that was picked up for gobs of money at Sundance. (It also features Toni Colette and Steve Carell, alumni of the ultimate Sundance crossover “Little Miss Sunshine.”)

The kid who’ll never forget this summer is Duncan (Liam James), an awkward, permanently sullen 14-year-old stuck on a beach house trip with his divorcee mom (Colette) and her cruel boyfriend (Carell), who kicks off the movie telling him he’d rate him a 3 on the 10-point scale. Such casual abuse is, thankfully, thin on the ground in the film’s remainder, which finds Duncan inevitably gaining confidence. While the grown-ups day drink like teenagers, he finds himself frequenting then suddenly working at the local rickety, retro ‘80s water park. It’s here that a boy so socially awkward it doesn’t appear he’s ever spoken to someone who’s not his mom can find questionable friends, chief among them an aging, too-cool-for-school water park employee (Sam Rockwell). The film also gives him a love interest in the girl literally next door (AnnaSophia Robb).

These are all cliches, right down to the killjoy third act tonal shift, when the hazy, lazy, good times vibe turns serious and emo. But this isn’t just a high-toned, high-buzzed twist on the ‘80s vacation likes of “Summer Rental.” There’s a few twists that make it tough to shrug off. Duncan may not speak or have any apparent personality, but he’s not a secret sensitive type. He really doesn’t appear to have any talents nor inner life. It’s suggested that, in all likelihood, he’ll just wind up like the rest of the water park staff: people, like Rockwell’s furtively remorseful antihero, who’ve stayed at this dumb job too long, let even modest ambitions go unrealized and only periodically pine for something more. There’s a very real, only somewhat delved into melancholy to the film, an air of disappointment and self-hatred that’s more serious than the “serious” developments in its final stretch.


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