×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Way, Way Back

This coming-of-ager can be explosively funny in parts, but overall feels pretty familiar, relying more on its cast than the material to win favor.

With:
Trent - Steve Carell
Pam - Toni Collette
Betty - Allison Janney
Susanna - AnnaSophia Robb
Owen - Sam Rockwell
Caitlin - Maya Rudolph
Duncan - Liam James
Kip - Rob Corddry
Joan - Amanda Peet
Peter - River Alexander
Steph - Zoe Levin
Roddy - Nat Faxon
Lewis - Jim Rash
Neil - Adam Riegler

The Black List script that got Nat Faxon and Jim Rash noticed, earning them the gig co-writing “The Descendants,” makes for an endearingly sweet coming-of-ager, now that the ex-Groundlings have taken matters into their own hands and made “The Way, Way Back” themselves. The story of a teen desperate for a father figure who finds encouragement from a wild-and-crazy water-park employee — rather than from the guy auditioning to be his stepdad — can be explosively funny in parts, but overall feels pretty familiar, relying more on its cast than the material to win favor. Distribs will scramble for this eminently marketable debut.

Named for the outward-facing bench in the back of an old station wagon, the pic identifies with the character stuck in that seat, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James). The kid is sleeping en route to his summer vacation when Trent (Steve Carell), the new guy his mom (Toni Collette) is dating, puts the question to him: On a scale of 10, how would he rate himself? Confused, Duncan fumbles a half-hearted “6,” only to have Trent correct him: No, he’s really more of a “3.”

That exact exchange, which Rash says originated with his own stepfather years ago, left scar tissue deep enough to inspire the script. However, Carell’s such a likable actor, while James so aptly embodies a sheepish kid with no special skills, the effect isn’t quite the same onscreen. Still, it’s not the sort of thing one says to a kid, and the film ultimately becomes the story of how Duncan finds the self-confidence to improve his score — but only after the adolescent dullard manages to emerge from the shadow of the other characters, the rest of whom are written as irrepressibly hilarious cut-ups. (Allison Janney in particular threatens to steal the show as the filter-less lush who lives next door.)

Lucky for Duncan, he makes a connection the moment the station wagon rolls into town, spotting Owen (Sam Rockwell) in the car behind them. It’s a weird scene, especially considering Rockwell’s unkempt and slightly pervy look — like a meet-cute between a child molester and his future prey — though the movie’s more innocent-minded than that (blue humor and language could earn it an R rating, but the pic cares precious little about so-called “adult situations”).

The way Nick sees it, Owen has the coolest job any 14-year-old could imagine, working at the nearby Water Wizz amusement park, and he soon starts sneaking off on his bike to hang out. Owen seems to understand precisely what the shy boy needs, giving him a job and gradually drawing him out of his shell. Here, the two actor-scribes join longtime friend Maya Rudolph as eccentric Water Wizz employees, and though much of their kidding is lost on the humorless Duncan, teaching the kid to smile seems to be victory enough.

Duncan keeps his new job a secret, not even telling the first kissable girl-next-door (AnnaSophia Robb) where he disappears each day, while mom and Trent are too busy partying with friends (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) to worry about Duncan’s whereabouts. It’s all a bit too sitcomish to sound sincere, as when sister-to-be Steph (Zoe Levin) takes one look at Duncan grinding with her dad’s latest fling and quips, “Enjoy therapy.”

The fact that Rash survived to co-write this script suggests things will work out for Duncan, though the scenes of his progress — especially a completely out-of-character breakdancing number that earns him the nickname “Pop ‘N’ Lock” — aren’t nearly as entertaining as the inappropriate grown-up behavior he’s running away from at home.

Besides, moviegoers have seen nearly all this on-the-job stuff before, whether in Greg Mottola’s similarly autobiographical “Adventureland” or in corny ’80s movies that take place when this story clearly ought to. Going the period route probably would have cost too much, but it would have helped to explain the film’s retro music choices, as well as the fact that Trent still drives a classic station wagon.

In terms of production value, “The Way, Way Back” looks great as it is, reminiscent of the similarly sweet-and-sour “Little Miss Sunshine” (on which Carell and Collette previously collaborated), though that film certainly made more of its signature vehicle.

Popular on Variety

The Way, Way Back

Production: A Sycamore Pictures, DoubleYou, OddLot Entertainment production in association with What Just Happened Prods. (International sales: WME/CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Kevin J. Walsh, Tom Rice. Executive producers, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Ben Nearn, Gigi Pritzker, George Parra. Co-producer, Rebecca Rivo. Directed, written by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.

Crew: Camera (color), John Bailey; editor, Tatiana S. Riegel; music, Rob Simonsen; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Mark Ricker; art director, Jeremy Woodward; set decorator, Rena Deangelo; costume designers, Ann Roth, Michelle Matland; sound (Dolby Digital), Kevin Parker; supervising sound designer, Scott Sanders; supervising sound editor, Perry Robertson; re-recording mixer, Patrick Cyccone; special effects supervisor, Christopher Walsh; visual effects supervisor, Sean Devereaux; visual effects, Zero VFX; stunt coordinator, Paul Marini; assistant director, Ramses Del Hierro; casting, Allison Jones. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2013. Running time: 102 MIN.

With: Trent - Steve Carell
Pam - Toni Collette
Betty - Allison Janney
Susanna - AnnaSophia Robb
Owen - Sam Rockwell
Caitlin - Maya Rudolph
Duncan - Liam James
Kip - Rob Corddry
Joan - Amanda Peet
Peter - River Alexander
Steph - Zoe Levin
Roddy - Nat Faxon
Lewis - Jim Rash
Neil - Adam Riegler

More Film

  • Spike Lee

    Spike Lee to Direct Hip-Hop Love Story 'Prince of Cats'

    Spike Lee will direct a big-screen version of the hip-hop love story “Prince of Cats,” based on Ron Wimberly’s graphic novel. Legendary has been developing the project with Janet and Kate Zucker of Zucker Productions. Lee, who won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” will also re-write the “Prince of Cats” script with [...]

  • DOLEMITE IS MY NAME!, 2019, DOL_Unit_06284.RAF

    'Dolemite Is My Name' Writer Larry Karaszewski Recalls 10-Year Journey to Make Rudy Ray Moore Biopic

    “Harriet” writer-director Kasi Lemmons was in a reflective mood at Tuesday night’s “Behind the Scene” event at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, sponsored by the Writers Guild of America West. The biopic, starring Cynthia Erivo as slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, has been receiving buzz since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s Lemmons’ [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Abrams Artists Agency Signs Writers Guild Deal

    In a major triumph for the Writers Guild of America, the Abrams Artists Agency has signed the WGA’s Code of Conduct, allowing the agency to return to representing WGA members again. Chairman Adam Bold made the announcement Wednesday, saying that the agency wants to put its clients back to work. He also noted WGA West [...]

  • Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis

    Holocaust Experts Debate 'Jojo Rabbit' at Museum of Tolerance Screening

    With its comedic, cartoonish portrayal of Nazis, Taika Waititi’s satirical Hitler youth tale “Jojo Rabbit” has polarized critics and audiences alike. And that division continued to be stirred at Tuesday night’s screening of the film at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where Liebe Geft, director of the museum, moderated a heated panel discussion [...]

  • Mark Ruffalo stars as "Robert Bilott"

    Film Review: Todd Haynes' 'Dark Waters'

    What does a rabble-rousing, fight-the-power, ripped-from-the-headlines corporate-conspiracy whistleblower drama look like in the Trump era? It looks like Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” — which is to say, it looks very dark indeed. And also potent and gripping and necessary. The movie form I’m talking about is one we all know in our bones; you could [...]

  • Jonathan Majors

    'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' Star Jonathan Majors Reflects on His Breakout Year

    Jonathan Majors is on a roll. Not only did the 30-year-old actor recently earn a Gotham Award nomination for his performance as Montgomery Allen in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” he’s now filming the Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams-produced “Lovecraft Country.” “I’ve done the math,” Majors said. “Eight years of steady acting training [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content