Academy Award winning writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – for their work on Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – make their directorial debut with The Way Way Back, an Adventureland-esque tale of a teen recluse (Liam James) who flees to a water park to escape his mother’s feeble demeanour and the unjustifiably awful wrath of her boyfriend (Steve Carell)
The park becomes Duncan’s solace, with his manager, a scene stealing Sam Rockwell, stepping into the parental role and helping him find his feet. Surly and silent, Duncan is a gaping void of a character. To the film’s advantage this allows his surrounding characters to thrive. They pour into Duncan’s silence with confessions, stories and troubles until they’re pressed for a response.
To its disadvantage this renders some of the story’s central relationships completely unbelievable. Intentionally or not James lacks appeal. His hunched frame and absence of certainty don’t hold appeal, and with his crippling shyness bordering on rudeness it is hard to gage why Rockwell’s Owen or AnnaSophia Robb’s love interest go out of their way to embrace him.
Carell’s move away from the disarmingly nice has near caricature results, and Toni Collett’s waify divorcee one of a few two-dimensional additions to the story save for Owen. Teetering on the precipice of arrogance, Rockwell’s washed up park manager is the boy who won’t grow up, aggravating visitors and staff alike with his lazy mannerisms and cocky whit. It’s not debated that Owen will ever leave the park or go on to reach his potential but his traits and charisma make him appealing to follow in spite of his story going nowhere in particular.
The story is a little predictable, the lead character unapproachable, but still with Faxon and Rash at the helm this makes for an enjoyable, if not lasting, summer story.