The Way Way Back is carried by its performances of a few key cast members as its weak script would come crashing down without them.
The film is supposed to be a coming of age story about our protagonist Duncan, played the borderline terrible Liam James, but the progress he makes from beginning to end is almost completely unearned. Everything that happens in the film is happening simply because it is “supposed to” as characters’ actions and behaviors seem to have little consequence and never enough motivation. Duncan needs to be self confident and cool, quick have him do break dancing which he would never do in a million years based on what we know about him and then run a montage where he becomes so cool he can objectify young girls on the super slide. Progress, right? The angst side of James’ performance is almost laughable most of the time and he is asked to play it every time he is away from the water park.
Predictably, these are the worst segments of the film. A completely unearned romance with a neighbor girl, AnnaSophia Robb, never shows an ounce of chemistry; and we can’t blame Robb. The relationship between Duncan and his potential step dad Trent, Steve Carell in kind of douchey mode, wants to paint Trent as the film’s villain, but Duncan comes across as the bigger dick; but don’t worry, they will forcibly saddle Trent with enough things to hate him by the end. And worst of all, the film tries to hang its emotional punch on Duncan and his Mother’s relationship, only they give Toni Collette nothing to do but play the desperate housewife who will do anything for a man. Plus, Duncan treats his mom like shit and we are supposed to feel happy for them in the final moments? Because the film just has things happen for the sake of drama or ease of character development the film also feels terribly disjointed as it lumbers towards its conclusion. And oh that conclusion, it goes a long way to burning a lot of good will built up by Sam Rockwell as I was rolling my eyes and ready to groan at the ridiculous tonal shift to an everybody’s happy ending.
But thank God this film has Sam Rockwell. They even tried to screw up his story with some melodramatic shenanigans with Maya Rudolph and him needing to grow up to, but thankfully they just pay one scene of lip service to this and magically everything is fine. Terrible writing, but they almost derailed the only parts of the film that work. Rockwell is a strong enough father surrogate for Duncan, even if James’ performance doesn’t sell us on the influence, but he works best as he just does some excellent comic relief. Rockwell is funny almost every time he opens his mouth and you will just find yourself just wishing you could get back to the water park scenes. Rockwell almost seems to be making fun of how terrible James is at times in the early goings and I was laughing along with him every step of the way. Co-Writer/Director Jim Rash might have contributed to a weak script, but he is the other saving grace of the film as the scene stealing Lewis. Allison Janney also comes in and does her thing, but the film leaves her in the dust after setting up the stage, losing one of its strongest pieces in the process.
The Way Way Back is a watchable film even with everything it has going against it, but it would be a disaster if it wasn’t for Sam Rockwell. Fans of his should seek this out for sure, but be prepared to be disappointed with just about everything else in it. We need more Sam Rockwell performances, it’s a shame he had to do such fine work in such a weak film.
The Way Way Back is a D+