Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb in The Way, Way Back


DIRECTORS: Jim Rash and Nat Faxon

CAST: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Liam James, Zoe Levin, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb


RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

John DeFore

With an Oscar (shared with Alexander Payne) for adapting the Hawaii-set The Descendants still warm in their pockets, comedic actors and screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon turn to another water paradise for their directorial debut, The Way, Way Back.

Set at a water park near a beach holiday town, the tender and very funny film follows a misfit teen as he gets his first taste of confidence among the water slides.

Reminiscent of Greg Mottola’s 2009 Adventureland but more focused on laughs than nostalgia, the film is a crowd-pleaser.

One assumes this film was originally intended to be, like Adventureland, a 1980s-set period piece. The title refers to the rear-facing back seat of a vintage station wagon; songs by Mister Mister and REO Speedwagon are used without irony; and our hero’s first test of mettle occurs at an impromptu break-dance party.

Whether the setting was changed to avoid Mottola comparisons or to control the budget, the film’s story could easily take place any time in the era of rampant divorce. Duncan (James) is stuck spending the summer at the beach with mom Pam (Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Carell), a situation made more awkward by the presence of Trent’s daughter-from-earlier-marriage Steph (Levin), a prototypical Mean Girl.

Spending as much time as he can away from the unwelcome advice of Trent, who calls him “Buddy” and thinks making things work as a new family means hectoring the boy until he’s normal, Duncan winds up with a secret job at Water Wizz, an ancient but successful park presided over by joke-cracking layabout Owen, a man with a fondness for oddballs.

As Owen, Sam Rockwell gives what may be the best performance in a career full of charm. Teasing Duncan relentlessly while at the same time boosting his self-esteem, his Owen steals the film, tossing off comic monologues and only occasionally complaining that his humour is way over everyone’s heads. (Or, more to the point, too reliant on 1980s references to be understood by today’s youth.)

In her first scene as the alcoholic next door to Trent’s house, Allison Janney competes with Rockwell for laughs a minute – she’s a tornado of Too Much Information – but her character soon calms down enough to be wise witness to Trent’s increasingly sketchy treatment of Pam, and to lay her own single-parent burden on standoffish daughter Susanna (Robb).

Way Back is a charmer, putting refreshingly little emphasis on Duncan’s romantic needs and allowing family melodrama to erupt and simmer down without pat resolution. Like a kid who gets a free summer in an exclusive beach town and chooses to spend his days manning a water park, it knows when not to take the obvious route. – The Hollywood Reporter

If you liked Adventureland or Youth in Revolt you will like this.