Written and directed by The Descendants scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (of Community) it’s light but grounded in the realities of growing up. The film centers on Duncan (Liam James) as he moves back and forth between two families. At home he’s got his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and their boozy and incredibly irresponsible friends to keep him company. But at a local water park where he gets a job, he’s got the swaggering and slightly less irresponsible Owen (Sam Rockwell) and the other misfits that staff the slides.
The moments of cognitive dissonance in the film (part of the plot hinges on Steve Carell’s character being just completely irresistible to women) and overwriting (there isn’t very much silence) are balanced with moments that are close to brilliance. In particular the portrayal of Duncan stands out. The character looks and acts like a real fourteen-year-old boy and his story is relatable to anyone who wanted out of their family or even just their current situation. The recklessness and selfishness the adults exhibit is also believable. Sometimes grown-ups need to let off some steam too.
The film is also slyly funny, making really excellent use of its supporting players. Allison Janney in particular shines as a neighbor who is loud, rude, and pretty much the worst parent in existence. Rockwell is reliably charming (if sometimes a little too much), as is Maya Rudolph. Carell plays the jerk here, but nastier and crueler than he’s played before.
Of course the real star is James, probably best known before for playing Young Shawn in flashbacks on the show Psych. It may be premature, but I think this kid is going places. The movie wouldn’t have worked without a strong actor at its center. James delivered in all of his scenes, and he’s in nearly every frame of the film.
The Way Way Back is really nice counter-programming for the summer. Visuals of an Atlantic beach town feel familiar and poignant, especially in light of Hurricane Sandy. It never takes it too seriously or lets its humor become callous. A lot like being fourteen, sometimes it’s fun and games, and sometimes it’s not.
The Way Way Back opens at the Ritz Five today.