This little shaggy dog story takes place in an oddly retro-feeling Cape Cod beach town. Shy and awkward 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) belts out an off-key rendition of an REO Speedwagon oldie (albeit while listening to an iPod). He’s wiling away his summer, having been dragged to a vacation home against his will by his wishy-washy mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her slightly bully-ish boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Duncan’s choice of music wouldn’t be as notable if it weren’t for a soundtrack peppered with ‘80s hits like Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” and INXS’s “New Sensation.” Fun-loving water park employee Owen (Sam Rockwell) recites the lyrics to “Holding Out for a Hero” from Footloose and also has a Pac-Man fixation.
This is all evidence that Faxon and Rash (who both appear in supporting roles) had difficulty setting an accurate time and place. Their film feels so firmly set in the early-‘80s, it seems puzzling that they didn’t go all the way and make it a period piece. Because Duncan, Trent’s supremely bitchy teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), and teen-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) aren’t tethered to mobile devices 24/7, they never really feel like 21st century youth. It feels like a “those were the days” nostalgia piece, a throwback to a not-particularly-troubled adolescent period during which social media and the like didn’t yet exist.
The Way Way Back meanders rather aimlessly, setting up too many story threads than it can develop over 103 minutes. Duncan doesn’t get along with his vaguely threatening (though not, as far as we see, physically abusive) surrogate stepdad. Carell does a nice job playing the kinda/sorta bad guy, but Collette’s spineless Pam is the real villain. “It’s like spring break for adults,” Susanna tells Duncan, an apt enough explanation for what the confused boy sees as irresponsible behavior on his mother’s part (too much drinking, pot smoking, and a general devil-may-care attitude). He also doesn’t understand her passivity in the face of obvious adultery on Trent’s part.
It’s at the local water park that Duncan finds solace. He starts working there part time, even though he’s underage and his mother was not notified. It’s the only place he can be himself. As Owen, Rockwell is never less than likeable, but he’s also a purely cinematic creation—the golden-hearted adult who always knows just what to say to brighten any kid’s day. Like everyone else here, we never get inside Owen’s head to find out why this 40something is still a goofy water park assistant manager. His boss and love interest Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) is similarly thinly conceived.
And yet somehow all these loose ends and narrative non-starters wind up being quite entertaining. Not much happens, but this particular group of actors gels nicely and goes a long ways toward making it all work. Ultimately though, it’s not that much more fully realized than Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, only aimed at a more mature audience. And at its most cloying, some of the water park hijinks recall an earlier Maya Rudolph movie, Grown Ups. That’s not exactly complimentary toward the work of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, since they were clearly aiming for drama of a higher order than those films. But for laughs and endearing characters, I’d personally be more like to revisit either of them before The Way Way Back.
Fox’s 1080p high definition presentation hits the spot, offering an accurate reproduction of John Bailey’s oversaturated cinematography. The film has a deliberately high contract look, presumably to emphasize the sweaty, oppressive heat of summer. Black levels are nice and deep, and campfire-lit nighttime beach scenes retain plenty of detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is nothing to write home about, but it delivers crisp dialogue perfectly well. The indie pop soundtrack tunes always blend well, quietly supporting the action.
Supplements are fairly light, but the Blu-ray exclusive “The Making of The Way Way Back” offers a nice look behind the scenes. Divided into several shorter segments, the “play all” function allows for a half-hour of uninterrupted viewing. There are also a few deleted scenes and a trio of short promotional featurettes. An UltraViolet digital copy is part of the Blu-ray package.
The Way Way Back feels like it was made from a solid screenplay that needed at least one more draft. The dialogue is mostly believable and the cast has a field day. Allison Janney works wonders with limited screen time as Susanna’s boozy mother, Betty. But her young son with a lazy eye, Peter (River Alexander), is straight out of a sitcom (not Alexander’s fault, by the way, just the way Peter was written). But Liam James and Sam Rockwell go some ways towards instilling real heart in this ultimately glib summer vacation story.