Film Review: The Way, Way Back

“S-s-s-s-s-summer,” sang Ric Ocasek back in 1984 and boy, he wasn’t kidding. Years may come and years may go, but one thing they’ve all got in common is a semi-sunny bit in the middle, named in honour of Rachel Bilson’s character from The O.C., of whose coming the ancient prophets foretold (didn’t guess that Marissa would die, mind. Total bolt from the blue).

The Way, Way Back

Summer (the thing, not the Bilson) is very much on the mind of 14-year-old Duncan (played by Liam James) at the outset of The Way, Way Back, and not in a good way. His folks having divorced, Duncan is off with mom Pam (Toni Collette) to spend his school vacation at the Riptide, the beach house of Pam’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell).

A passive-aggressive alpha male with Jeremy Paxman facial fuzz, Trent is, to put it bluntly, an epic douche nozzle. And with his teenage daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), also treating Duncan with the same degree of love and affection that the Romans used to lavish on the Christians, the young lad’s summer is shaping up to be one hell of a bummer.

This is however a quirky American indie, so things need to get better for Duncan, right?

Well, get better they do, as he strikes up a friendship with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the man-child manager of the local water park – leading to fun, frolics, breakdancing, and a blossoming friendship with neighbour Suzanne (AnnaSophia Robb). Yet all the while the animosity between Trent and Duncan lingers, just waiting for the spark that’ll make it explode.

Now, if that all sounds to you like rather a lot of plot then you’d be as dead on the money as a fly that’s just been splatted with a rolled-up fiver. Oscar-winning screenwriters they may be for their work on Alexander Payne’s The Descendants but first-time co-writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash somewhat overload their narrative, with the result that the excess of incident leaves other aspects of The Way, Way Back feeling a tad undercooked.

Most notable in this regard is the character of Trent, who never shows much depth beyond just being a good old-fashioned bullying twat-bucket. Carrell is watchable enough, without ever doing or saying anything that will make you feel you have half a clue as to what makes Trent tick in so objectionable a manner.

The erstwhile Michael Scott aside, where the Way, Way Back does hit home is through its performances. Actors themselves, who both take minor parts in their own movie, Faxon and Rash have assembled a terrific cast, with Allison Janney and Maya Rudolph in particular making an impact in what could otherwise have been forgettable supporting roles.

The Way, Way Back

After being shamefully wasted in two summer blockbusters (Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens), Sam Rockwell really gets to cut loose as Owen, a ringleader of mischief with such reserves of twinkling charm you’ll find yourself wishing he was your magic friend back when you were a sullen teenager.

Rash and Faxon give Rockwell some sharp lines to work with, but the character could undoubtedly have been annoying and/or unconvincing in the hands of a lesser actor. That Owen is neither of those things is primarily down to Rockwell’s talent and innate likability.

And for his part, Liam James does well to anchor the movie, even if the young actor looks so uncannily like wantaway Spurs winger Gareth Bale that you half-expect each argument between Duncan and Trent to end with the youngster screaming “Screw you, old man, I’m off to Real Madrid to wallow in a swimming pool full of cash!”

The Way, Way Back probably won’t earn a swimming pool full of cash on release (I literally have no idea how much cash that actually would be…); it feels too slight to break through in the manner of a Little Miss Sunshine.

It is, however, a perfectly watchable, largely enjoyable comedy-drama. And as we come to the end of the 2013 summer season at the movies, when for so long explosions and CG have ruled the roost, that’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

The Way, Way Back is released in the UK on 28 August.