Poor, poor Duncan. He's 14, introverted, awkward. His father will have nothing to do with him, and his mother, well-meaning as she is, has dragged him away from home to live at her boyfriend's beach house for the summer. Given that Duncan doesn't make friends easily, the premise is ideal for a coming-of-age story, and "The Way, Way Back" does not disappoint.
The film is sharp, witty and biting, self-aware but never manipulative nor cloying. Duncan (Liam James), hunched over with the poor posture that afflicts many teens, wants to be left alone so he won't get picked on. As a result, as anyone who's overcome self-esteem issues can attest, he shuts himself off to others, making it difficult to develop the connections with people he so desperately needs. It's easy to forget how torturous being a teenager really is.
Co-writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Academy Award for "The Descendants") are keenly aware of this angst and smartly match Duncan's despondence with wonderful supporting characters who affect him in differing ways. In his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), there's frustration. In Pam's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), there's anger and resentment. Trent's daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), thinks Duncan's a loser, as do most kids his age. Trent's loud, annoying friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) are a bad influence on Pam. Neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) is a drunken flirt who's painfully funny to her cross-eyed son, Peter (River Alexander), in whom Duncan no doubt sees himself.
Of course, Duncan has a few allies. Betty's daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), takes a liking to him, and when he ventures to a nearby water park, he meets a series of kind souls eager to embrace a fellow misfit. Because they're adults, they don't judge, and they remember being that age themselves. Duncan finds salvation in working with Owen (Sam Rockwell), Roddy (Faxon) and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). These friends build his confidence and help him grow into a man. And it's a heartwarming, enjoyable process to watch.
There are two standouts in the stellar supporting cast: Janney is great as the nosey, horny floozy who cracks hilarious one-liners as fast as she downs margaritas, and Rockwell is a riot as a slacker good guy whose mission for the summer seems to be to get Duncan to laugh. The thing is, though Duncan is a tough sell, almost all of Owen's jokes are funny to us. "Thanks for the ride," Duncan says after not being chatty during a lift home. "Thanks for the memories," Owen quips. We laugh, but Duncan doesn't get the sarcasm. Yet.
What's also impressive is that the adult cast is so versatile, the actors could've swapped roles without losing any of the story's impact. Consider: Carell usually plays likable nice guys, while Rockwell plays disreputable heels. But here, Carell is the antagonist, and Rockwell is the pal, and it works. Kudos to both of them for going against type and doing it so well.
At the core of "The Way, Way Back" is an understanding that we've all been through teen awkwardness, and it affects some more than others. Approaching the subject with compassion, humor and honesty are sensible ways to go about the story, and the filmmakers succeed admirably.