By Ellen Pham
“The Way, Way Back” resonates with anyone who has ever struggled to find a place to belong. In other words, it’s a movie everyone can relate to. It’s far from a perfect film, but it has enough redeeming qualities to make it worth seeing.
The movie follows Duncan (Liam James), a reserved 14-year-old boy who is forced to spend the summer with his mother (Toni Collette), her insensitive boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s daughter Steph. Family support is critical when teenagers are grappling with the challenges of becoming an adult, but Duncan has none. His mother is more focused on her relationship with her boyfriend than with her son, even though Trent manipulates her emotions through guilt. She drinks excessively and ridicules her son’s misery after her brutal divorce rather than sympathizing with him.
Meanwhile, Trent doesn’t like Duncan. The movie starts with Trent asking Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10, and after Duncan reluctantly replies, “six,” Trent says he thinks Duncan’s more like a “three.” Ouch. What’s even worse is when Trent feigns interest in improving his relationship with Duncan. Luckily, Duncan can see right through his façade.
Steph isn’t any better. She unwillingly drags Duncan along to her outings and constantly rebels by drinking alcohol, even though she’s only a few years older.
Duncan’s loneliness at home leads him to discover Water Wizz, a popular water park. He befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of Water Wizz, who turns out to be the only positive male role model in his life. The water park quickly becomes his refuge, a place where he can escape from his dysfunctional family.
While the plot at first appears simple, the film is splashed with serious, multifaceted themes including drugs and relationship trauma. Fortunately, the movie has ample comic relief to balance out the solemnity.
An up-and-coming actor, James handles his role with maturity. His portrayal of awkward, passive-aggressive Duncan is spot-on. Steve Carell from the Emmy award-winning comedy series “The Office” is surprisingly convincing as hard-nosed, cynical Trent. But the real gem in “The Way, Way Back” is Allison Janney (“The Help,” “Juno”). Her egregious rantings as Betty, Duncan’s neighbor, strike a genuine chord.
The film has many positives such as a talented cast and touching moments between Duncan and his mother, but it also has a few drawbacks. It has sloppy transitions, which make the storyline difficult to follow. The comic relief sometimes comes too abruptly after weighty scenes, creating an uncomfortable contrast between the two. And the predictable summer romance is shallower than a kiddie pool, with the chemistry between James and AnnaSophia Robb (“Bridge to Terabithia”) falling flat.
“The Way, Way Back” is a solid summer movie. It’s not especially memorable, but most viewers will find something to enjoy—if only because the emotion and humor will elicit nostalgia about their own memories of growing up.