AnnaSophia Robb and Liam James (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

AnnaSophia Robb and Liam James (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Written & Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Produced by Kevin J. Walsh & Tom Rice
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 103 min. Rated PG-13
With Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph & Liam James

It isn’t a secret by now that screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are really good at creating complicated and well-written teenage characters. Shailene Woodley’s rich performance in their Oscar-winning The Descendants is proof. In The Way Way Back, Faxon and Rash direct as well as write this sweet and refreshingly modern coming of age tale. Where so many focus on first loves and rebellious teenagers, this one takes a more subtle approach to big life lessons.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is forced to spend his summer vacation at his mother’s boyfriend’s beach house in Massachusetts. His parents are divorced and his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is enjoying have a man in her life again. Trent (Steve Carell), her obnoxious boyfriend, is shown as Duncan’s main antagonist in the very first scene, when he puts the teen down for his shyness and quiet behavior.

Trent has no idea how to talk to the boy, despite having a teenaged daughter (played by Zoe Levin), and it’s quickly established that Duncan’s animosity towards Trent is completely justified. On top of his attitude toward Duncan, Trent constantly overdoes the drinking and partying with his vacation friends, married couple Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet). One character refers to this vacation town as a “spring break for adults,” and not in a flattering way. Trent also treats Pam quite poorly, paying more attention to his beach pals than spending time with her and getting to know Duncan.

While this serious storyline is at the backbone of The Way Way Back, bright and funny characters round out the film. Next to Trent’s beach house lives the single Betty (Allison Janney), a boisterous divorcée with three kids. Betty throws herself into the summer beach house lifestyle, and Janney couldn’t be better cast in the role. Her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a bit older than Duncan, also feels like an outcast. The two strike up a friendship that teeters on romance, but ultimately she becomes a strong ally.

It’s not, however, on the beach where Duncan finds comfort from his family life. At a pizza place in town, he stumbles upon Owen (Sam Rockwell), a manager of a local water park. Owen’s out-there personality and well-meaning disregard for any rules allows Duncan to be himself, and he secretly spends all his time at the water park. Both Faxon and Rash play park employees; Rash particularly stands out as the melancholy Lewis, who works in the rental booth and dreams of leaving to do anything else, though everyone knows he’s all talk. It’s a departure from his more upbeat character on Community. Maya Rudolph plays the tougher park manager with a romantic history with Owen.

Among this great cast, Rockwell truly shines; the script gives him a lot to work with as he goes on comedic tirades that Duncan barely reacts to. at first. He’s a mentor figure with an edge; he doesn’t quite have it all together, but Owen inspires Duncan to embrace his own idiosyncrasies. As funny as Rockwell is, however, James as Duncan holds the film together. He plays the character so naturally awkward. Nothing seems forced about his inability to understand Owen’s jokes or hold a conversation with Susanna. Duncan slowly morphs into a more outgoing and comfortable version of himself, and James makes it a seamless development.

Perhaps the eccentric ensemble is a bit overwhelming at times, despite such wonderful actors. At times, the film feels a bit overstuffed with oddballs who, while entertaining, don’t always add much to the plot. It’s even hard to describe the film while hitting all the supporting characters, including Peter (River Alexander), Betty’s exceedingly confident younger son, or the group of kids that follow Owen around at the water park as if he is some kind of cult leader. But in the end, The Way Way Back manages to bring the film back to the simple story of Duncan’s struggle with his identity.