The Way, Way Back movie review: Awkward family vacay

Jul 5, 2013 at 9:00 a.m. ET

This charming but somewhat predictable indie film tells the coming-of-age story of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), as he struggles with his mother’s jerk boyfriend (Steve Carell) and finds refuge at a cheesy, second-rate water park.

The Way, Way Back

3.5 Stars: Perfect for lovers of coming-of-age teen films

It’s summer on the East Coast and many families know the routine of heading to the beach for a family vacation. Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James of AMC's The Killing) and his mom Pam (Toni Collette) head to Boston’s South Shore with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).

Trent seems to enjoy ridiculing socially awkward Duncan, especially when Pam isn’t around. It’s as if Trent feels the need to compete with Duncan at every turn, like they are sparring opponents. Trent seems desperate to break Duncan’s spirit.

To escape the torture, Duncan heads out on a girly pink bicycle to a wave park called Water Wizz. It is here, amongst the wave pool bathers and crazy-tube riders, he finds a friend named Owen (Sam Rockwell).

The Way, Way Back

Owen is a man-child. The kind of charismatic dude everyone likes at a party, but doesn’t make the best employee. Owen can tell something is missing from Duncan’s life and gives him a job at Water Wizz.

Meanwhile, when Duncan is back at the summer house, he does his best to stay out of the way while his mom and Trent smoke pot, get drunk, and mix with other friends who are acting more like teenagers then the actual teenagers.

Duncan meets the pretty blond neighbor girl, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), but is too shy to even speak to her. Susanna seems to be going through her own similar hell with her mother Betty (Allison Janney), another divorcée who’s booze-cruising around the neighborhood, inviting herself to parties, and berating her 10-year-old son for not wearing an eye patch over his lazy eye.

As tensions escalate at home between Duncan and Trent, Duncan is breaking out of his shell at Water Wizz, even earning himself the nickname “Pop 'n' Lock” for his improvised dance moves. But things go from bad to worse for Duncan when he discovers a secret about Trent, putting him smack dab in the middle of his mother and Trent’s relationship. Not a fun place to be when you’re 14.

This movie has a lot of humor in it, but at times it’s difficult to watch Steve Carell be such an a**hole when we’re so used to him as the dopey but lovable funny guy from The Office.

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The Way, Way Back

Sam Rockwell brings a comedic yet zen vibe to slacker Owen, perhaps channeling his inner Bill Murray. We are rooting for him to be that father figure Duncan so desperately needs, despite his lack of drive.

Maya Rudolph plays Caitlyn, Owen’s love interest and co-worker, but she seems very underutilized here as the straight woman for Rockwell’s comedic exploits.

Bottom line: The Way, Way Back will take you way back to those awkward teenage years and have you rooting for Duncan to stand up to the world and fight for his dignity. Hey Duncan, stay sweet.

Run time is 1 hour, 43 minutes. There are no extra scenes during or after the credits.

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight