The Hollywood assembly line churns out faux-indie dramatic comedies as efficiently as it delivers sight-and-sound shows about fighting robots.
Although (or because) The Way, Way Back debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival, even its late July release date is transparently strategic: late enough to avoid the summer box office behemoths, late enough in the year that it won't be totally forgotten once awards time rolls around, but far enough removed from November and December that it won't get capsized by higher-quality film fare.
Still, just because something is mass-produced—whether it's food, cars or movies—doesn't mean it can't also be enjoyable. And in the wake of a summer season filled with sequels of the week, superheroes, zombies and Johnny Depp wearing a freakin' crow on his head, a serviceable coming-of-age comedy, no matter how generic, is a welcome diversion.
It's a tumultuous time for 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is conscripted to spend the summer with his divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), at the Massachusetts beach house of her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent's catty teenage daughter Stephanie. On the ride down, Trent rates Duncan's current life-worthiness at three on a 10-point scale, effectively establishing both Trent's passive-aggressive dickishness and his strained relationship with Duncan.
It's appropriate that the name of Trent's cottage is "Riptide." The mood gets no better once Trent's friends comes calling, including Betty (Allison Janney), the boozy neighbor, and Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), Trent's equally shallow pals.
Isolated and ostracized at every turn, the dour Duncan finds solace in two places. First is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Betty's strikingly grounded daughter, who takes an instant liking to her neighbor. The other is Water Wizz, an area aquatic park where Duncan takes furtive bike rides to work and hang out with Owen (Sam Rockwell), one of the park's longtime employees and its resident wiseacre.
Making their directorial debuts, writers Nat Faxon and North Carolina native Jim Rash—both last seen winning an Oscar for their screenplay for The Descendants—reportedly drew on their own childhood experiences to craft their latest script. (There's also a little This Boy's Life, a morsel of Meatballs and layover in Adventureland.) Moreover, from the adult actors' ages to the conspicuously '80s soundtrack, the film seems more fixated on the arrested development of this group of Generation X-ers facing their midlife crossroads.
It's a sledgehammer of a metaphor that Water Wizz serves as Duncan's personal oasis away from the rest of his complicated life. For Duncan, Owen's friendship lacks any ulterior motive, and Susanna's fondness comes without strings.
As the sensitive teenage hero, James plays the latest iteration of a role that's mighty familiar in a young actor's career, and one that's hard to transcend. (Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera are two of the few members of this club to separate themselves from the pack.) However, Owen is a role tailor-made for Rockwell, who is given the meatiest dialogue and reciprocates with the one performance that awards voters are most likely to remember from way, way back in July.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Teenager, sailor, survivor, killer."