The Way, Way Back savors a Generation X nostalgia for the good ol’ days. Its time-warped sensibility invokes Pac-Man, Buick station wagons, and REO Speedwagon in subtle homage to The Flamingo Kid and other Eighties-era movies in which teenaged boys experience transformative summers on their way to adulthood. But the pop-culture signifiers in which The Way, Way Back takes such anachronistic pleasure contribute little to this contemporary coming-of-age tale taking place in a sleepy beach town on Cape Cod. Each way-back reference exists for no better reason than to give thirty- and fortysomethings something to nudge one another about. If that’s the end game, why not simply set the film in 1982? It’s a mystery as much as it’s a miscalculation.
The adolescent in The Way, Way Back is sad-sack Duncan (James), a 14-year-old child of divorce on extended vacation with his well-meaning mother (Collette) and Trent (Carell), her boyfriend from hell. Duncan’s slump-shouldered demeanor expresses how he carries the weight of his unhappy little world. (At one point, his mother rhetorically asks him whether it’s possible he could look any more miserable; there’s no question what the answer would be.) His body language begins to change when Owen (Rockwell), the somewhat irresponsible manager of the local water park, offers Duncan a job. In short (and largely improbable) order, the socially awkward teen finds his self-esteem. The film’s primary pleasure is watching James communicate Duncan’s growing confidence in the acceleration of his stride or the occasional unguarded smile. It’s a likable acting turn, though one the film does not always serve honestly.
That’s the central problem with The Way, Way Back – it’s more manipulative than truthful. Its pivotal conflict lies between Duncan and his potential stepfather, a grossly insensitive man who belittles him at every turn. This incessant cruelty and humiliation borders on emotional sadism and serves little purpose, given your immediate sympathy for Duncan in the first five minutes (as he sits in the rear-facing, way-back seat of Trent’s station wagon). Pity poor Carell in this thankless and one-dimensional role seemingly right out of Dickens. Though the always-wonderful Collette (who also teamed with Carell on the family comedy Little Miss Sunshine) conveys how loneliness and fear can blind us despite what we see, the original screenplay by co-writers and co-directors Faxon and Rash (who won Oscars for penning the screen adaptation for The Descendants) fails to illuminate how this decent woman has ended up with such a jerk. Unsure about how to bring things to a close, it hurries to an ambiguous ending that suggests things may improve for Duncan. The restrained sentimentality in these last few moments of the film is laudable. In fact, they may be the most credible moments in the entire movie.