Earlier this year, “The Way, Way Back” made waves at the Sundance Film Festival when Fox Searchlight bought the crowd favorite for a near-record $10 million, and though that may sound like a lot for a small indie movie, it was worth every penny. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the studio paid so much for a Sundance darling – in 2006, they won a heated bidding war to acquire the rights to “Little Miss Sunshine” – and the two movies are very similar in the way that they effortlessly transition between comedy and drama. “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t have enough emotional punch to be an awards contender, but in a summer filled with big budget blockbusters, leave it to a quaint coming-of-age comedy to stand out as the best of the season.
The title refers to that rear-facing backseat found in station wagons, and this is where we’re first introduced to introverted 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who’s being dragged by his mom (Toni Collette) to a Massachusetts beach home to spend the summer with her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin). Trent is a bit of a dick, and he proves as much in the opening scene when, after asking Liam what he thinks of himself on a scale of 1-10, Trent suggests that he’s only a 3. But for some reason, Duncan’s mom likes him, and so while the adults party like they’re on spring break, he’s left to wallow around town on his own. Lacking the confidence to strike up a friendship with the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb), Duncan finds solace at the local water park, Water Wizz, where he meets an unexpected friend and mentor in easygoing manager Owen (Sam Rockwell).
Much like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Way, Way Back” succeeds due to its winning script and talented cast. James holds his own alongside some really great actors as the perpetually awkward wallflower (he tells you all you need to know about Duncan from his defeated body language), while Carell plays against type once again in a role that, although somewhat one-dimensional, proves that he may be a stronger dramatic actor than a comedian. However, it’s Rockwell who completely owns the movie as the fast-talking king of the water park. Channeling Bill Murray from “Meatballs,” Owen is the kind of guy that everyone wants to be around, and it’s easy to see why thanks to Rockwell’s immensely charming and hilarious performance. The rest of the ensemble isn’t given quite as much to do (Allison Janney has some funny scenes as the boozy neighbor, and writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash earn some laughs in smaller roles), but they provide excellent support nonetheless.
Many of the characters are imbued with a vulnerability that gives them a lived-in quality, and that’s where having good actors in seemingly throwaway roles is really important. It helps that Faxon and Rash (who won an Oscar for penning the 2011 tragicomedy “The Descendants”) have written a script that’s as smart, funny and sweet as it is incredibly heartbreaking at times, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they earned another nomination come awards time. “The Way, Way Back” is a solid directorial debut from the duo, but it’s not particularly showy, instead relying mostly on its fantastic screenplay and a career-best performance by Rockwell. The film also does a great job of breathing new life into the typical coming-of-age story, because although it follows an all-too-familiar journey, it feels like an entirely fresh experience.