That’s the situation facing the painfully shy Duncan (Liam James) in the new comedy/drama “The Way Way Back,” written and directed by Academy Award winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) forces him to spend the summer at her new boyfriend Trent’s (Steve Carell) traditional summer home, along with Trent’s surly teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). The tension is palpable because Trent always gets on Duncan’s case, making him feel like he’s not good enough. This creates even more emotional trauma for the already-awkward teen, who’s obviously still shaken by his parent’s divorce.
While getting away from the uncomfortable situation at home for a while, Duncan stumbles upon the Water Wizz amusement park run by the town’s charismatic free spirit Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen tries kidding around with Duncan, who is so uptight and wrapped up in his own mind that the jokes go over his head. Sensing that Duncan needs something to build up his sense of self-worth, Owen gives him a job at Water Wizz. Surrounded by the park’s eclectic cast of funny characters who actually grow to like and care about him, Duncan begins the crucial process of growing in confidence and taking himself less seriously.
Though the focus seems to lie on Duncan’s growing pains, he’s actually more mature than Trent, Pam, and some of their other neighbors. He’s craving a parent to guide him, but all he’s got is a group of adults who act like they’re on spring break (as one character says). That’s certainly the case when the adults go off to smoke pot, while Duncan looks on confusedly because that’s not the type of thing his mom ever does. But she’s playing along because of Trent’s insistence that he wants them to feel like a family.
Ironically, Trent’s domineering nature prevents any kind of family feelings to arise. The only time they seem close is in a scene after Trent has gone off by himself and Duncan, Pam and Steph clear plates and wash dishes by themselves. No words are spoken, but the visual conveys an undercurrent of normal home life that’s severely lacking.
Liam James inhabits Duncan’s struggles and growth perfectly, while Rockwell’s Owen, though a little immature himself, discovers there are times when the fun-loving guy needs to be a responsible adult as well. Owen’s big heart and hilarious references more than make up for his shortcomings, though.
The same can’t be said for Trent, with Carell playing completely against type as an unlikable lout. He’s never the loud, angry bully, but instead the calm-sounding jerk who gets under your skin with his insistence that he’s just being rational. His character also serves as a vivid reminder that there’s a big difference between not coddling your kids and belittling them.
Other standouts in the cast are Allison Janney as Betty, the boisterous and bawdy next door neighbor whose antics embarrass her kids, but make the audience laugh; AnnaSophia Robb as Betty’s daughter Susanna, who is also an unhappy child of divorce and Duncan’s only friend near his home turf; River Alexander as Betty’s other child Peter, whose life seems to revolve around his mother trying to keep people from looking at his lazy eye; and Maya Rudolph as Water Wizz employee Caitlin, who may be the only one who can get Owen to shape up a little.
“The Way Way Back” is a tender and funny charmer of a film with a lot to say about the differences between acting like a child and being an adult.