“The Way Way Back,” a coming-of-age movie centering on a 14-year-old boy coping with his parents’ divorce and his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Carell) is a refreshing burst of summer, well played by a seasoned cast that includes Allison Janney (“The West Wing”), Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Life”), Rob Corddry, Toni Collette, Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell and new-comer Liam James as the boy who provides the focal point of the story.
Special praise has to go out to Rockwell, who is one of the few actors with the requisite “cool” to pull off the character of Owen, who runs the Water Wizz water park in East Wareham, Massachusetts, where young Duncan (Liam James) finds himself on the summer vacation trip from Hell.
It isn’t just that Duncan’s father is far away in San Diego getting it on with a new younger girlfriend, but also the fact that Duncan must deal with constant put-downs, outright and subtle, from his mother’s new boyfriend, a part in which Steve Carell bravely plays against type. Carell is usually the likeable focus of a film. Here he’s just one of the experienced ensemble troupe of players and not a very likeable one, at that.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote the funny, insightful script, a near tear-jerker in which Sam Rockwell’s flippant pool manager Owen teaches young Duncan that “You can’t buy into that s***. You gotta’ go your own way.” Or, as the theme song playing over the movie’s credits, sung by Edie Brickell puts it, “Go where the love is and you won’t be lost again.”
There’s undeniable clever humor in learning that Amanda Peet’s character (Joan) thinks that the song ‘Kyrie Eleison” represents the lyric “Carry a laser,” and we all root for poor, oppressed Duncan, who is forced to ride around town on a girl’s pink bike (“Is that from the Princess Collection?” asks Owen.) and just wants to put as much distance between himself and his would-be stepfather (Steve Carell) as possible.
Wacky divorced neighbor Suzanne (Allyson Janney), with her 3 kids and the ex-husband who came out as gay, is one of the more colorful characters, but the profound observations are all between Liam James and Sam Rockwell, as Liam’s character Duncan says, re Water Wizz, “This is the only place I’m happy.”
A brief nod to River Alexander playing the part of Peter, whose amblyopia is the butt of many jokes, including the wearing of an eye patch adorned with Ninja Turtles. When Duncan sneaks Peter into an “adults only” going away party for Water Wizz’s employee Louis, (who says he is leaving the park), Peter—who can’t be much more than 10—-tries to snag a beer. Stopped by Sam Rockwell’s Owen at the moment of truth, young Peter says, defiantly, “I had a beer before,” to which Rockwell replies, “And I spent a night in jail, but there’s a limit to anything.”
Second film of the summer about “coming of age” (first being “Kings of Summer”) but by far the funniest and most enjoyable, with a killer soundtrack and great performances from all involved.