The Way, Way Back *** (out of five)
Duncan (Liam Jones) is fourteen; his mom Pam (Toni Collette), having been divorced for over a year, is dating a jerk, Trent (Steve Carell). When the three of them and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) spend a summer at Trent’s beach house, Duncan learns some life lessons from the owner of a local Water Slide park, Owen (Sam Rockwell).
Nothing is unexpected here; the humour is gentle and safe, the situations well covered in many other coming-of-age films. What edge there is comes from Carell’s Trent; it’s quite a brave performance coming from a guy who’s made a career out of playing nice. But the richness is in the details: the production design is terrific; the houses, the clothes, the flip-flops and bathing suits, and, most importantly, the water park itself all smell completely authentic. Visually, everything rings true.
The film would be nothing were it not for Rockwell and Jones, and they achieve a very nice chemistry. Rockwell’s Owen is kind of a Falstaff figure, except he’s essentially benign; he doesn’t take drugs, or drink too much, or screw around, or really show any bad behavior at all. He’s a fun-loving, perhaps slightly lazy fellow, but, on almost every level, he’s a brilliant role model. Jones has the unenviable task, the job of all leads in coming-of-age films, of gradually showing enlightenment; he pulls it off, without announcing the arrival of a revelatory new talent. Special mention should be made of AnnaSophia Robb, who is fresh and lively as the girl Duncan kind of falls for, and Faxon, who, besides writing and directing, plays Owen’s blonde dude offsider Roddy with such laid-back ease that he may well start getting the roles Owen Wilson rejects. Overall, it’s a pleasant and gentle ride, not unlike a water slide. You won’t have a heart attack, you’ll just get a little wet.