MAINSTREAM MOVIES remind me of family reunions: inane dialogue, formulaic plots, and two-dimensional characters. The Way, Way Back felt so much like a family reunion that by the end, I was ready to get drunk with my cousins and forget it ever happened.
This coming-of-age story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who's so silent around his family that he could be taken out of any scene and it would suck precisely the same amount. One day Duncan wanders into an arcade attached to the town's water park and meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a loveable thirtysomething who gets him a job. Duncan's immediately embraced by the staff at the water park—but at the same time, his stepdad's (Steve Carell) affair becomes harder to ignore. This causes Duncan to transform from a bland non-character into a stock surly teenage character.
When Duncan gets introduced to Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), I thought maybe there was still time for this film to be salvaged by some awkward teen sex scenes. Alas, she and Duncan's romance boils down to one misunderstood kiss. Some of the sweeter, subtler scenes—like the ones featuring Duncan's mother (Toni Collette) and her neighbor pal (Allison Janney)—also gave me hope, but that optimism dissipated by the time Duncan participated in a break-dance competition featuring the only African Americans in the film.
The Way, Way Back has the makings of a great summer flick—it's got a stellar cast, and it's written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who, along with Alexander Payne, scored Oscars for writing The Descendants. After seeing The Way, Way Back, I'm guessing it was Payne who put the most time into The Descendants' script, while Faxon and Rash were lighting up blunts, hitting on younger women, and going down water slides.