Fourteen-year old Duncan (Liam James) is in the pits. Divorce has taken his father to San Diego with his younger wife and “You know, son, it would be crowded with you here.” So Duncan is stuck spending the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Colette), and the overbearing used car salesman, Trent (Steve Carell), who is threatening to become his stepfather. Trent insists that Duncan must shape up if they are all going to be one big, happy new family. To prove how much work Duncan needs to do on himself, Trent announces that on a scale of 1 to 10, young Duncan is a “3.”
Duncan contemplates his misery from the back window in the “way way back” seat of Trent’s vintage station wagon as it heads its fateful way to Trent’s beach house. The house, located a block from the Massachusetts shore, is named “Riptide”. So it’s no surprise that Duncan will feel caught in a stretch of turbulent sea while one current of his life flows across the other.
As horrible as Duncan’s predicament is, we enjoy every minute of it because, in a word, The Way Way Back is perfect. It’s a brilliant script — both lean and hilarious. The cast is perfect — troubled teen Liam James is unforgettable, Toni Collette (whom I normally can’t stand) is a sympathetic divorced Mom, torn between her adult loneliness and love for her son. Even Steve Carell, playing against type as the insidious hypocrite, is so good you want to pound him.
All the other elements of the film are perfect, too — the glorious sound track, the masterful cinematography, even the costumes are worthy of note. I laughed my head off in this movie, and cried, too. As I said, it’s a perfect film.
Adding to Duncan’s misery are the other adults in Trent’s circle. There’s Betty (Allison Janney), the loud next door matron who drinks too much. Her son Pete (River Alexander) has lazy eye, and Betty insists the poor kid wear a patch over it because it scares people. Crowding the house’s space are Trent’s summer pals, the clueless Kip (an underused Rob Corddry) and his wife, Joan (Amanda Peet), a coy sex pot who’s waiting to boil over.
Duncan finds a girl’s bicycle in the garage and he pedals it furiously, anywhere, to escape the stifling house. He ends up at Water Wiz, a dilapidated water park built in 1983, whose late owner decreed in his will that it never get any improvements. Thus, the park attracts a goodly number of oddball kids as customers, and a motley crew of adults as employees. Two parts played by the film’s directing/writing team threaten to steal the show — Roddy (Nat Fox) is an expert at getting girls to stand still before entering the water slide, while he and Duncan sneak looks at their bikini-clad prettiness. Lewis (Jim Rash) is the hysterically neurotic caretaker of the swimsuit rental booth. The only grown-up on staff is the wonderful earthy Maya Rudolph.
The ringmaster of the water park circus is Owen, played by Sam Rockwell — an actor I adore, even if he is recycling his shtick from other movies. With mind-boggling motor-mouth dialogue, Owen fools himself into believing he’s charming everyone enough so they don’t notice he’s not taking care of business. But for Duncan, he’s the ideal antidote to his phony stepfather-to-be and the boy clings to Owen like a drowning duck.
Owen hires Duncan and, like the father he doesn’t have, makes the timid boy do things that stretch his confidence and break out of his shell. Duncan even blossoms enough to carry on a decent conversation with Susan (AnnaSophia Robb), his winsome next-door neighbor.
We enjoy every stage of Duncan’s painful emergence because we’ve all been there. We all know, even if we weren’t lucky enough to experience it ourselves, how one caring adult can balance the unhappiness of a child’s family. Often it was a teacher, or a grandparent or a kindly neighbor. Whoever it was, that adult changes the course of teenager’s life. We know when Duncan leaves Water Wiz, he’s again in the way way back seat, but this time he’s facing his future, not as a wimpy “3,” but as a hopeful, fun-loving “10.”
Don’t miss this little gem and be sure to take your family with you.