"The Way Way Back" relishes in burying its protagonist in a hole so the audience can feel elation while he digs himself out again.
Duncan (Liam James) is a miserable 14-year-old. He's stuck with his mother while his father starts a new life with a younger woman far away in San Diego. But they aren't alone. His mother, Pam (played by Toni Collette), is dating a man named Trent (Steve Carell). Trent openly tells Duncan that he rates about a 3 out of 10 overall, and his daughter treats him more like a 2. Even worse, Pam and Trent have opted to take their miniature Brady Bunch arrangement to Trent's beach house to spend the summer in an isolated resort town described sneeringly as "Disneyland for adults." The beach house is rustic and romantic, but it's also stationed in a murderer's row of nightmare neighbors, led by Betty (Allison Janney).
Duncan's only ray of hope is Betty's daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the cute, slightly older blonde-next-door, but since he paralyzes with fear at the prospect of speaking to a girl, the ray is dim.
So Duncan muscles through each day, silently enduring the companionship of his makeshift family when he has to, then racing off to explore the community when he gets the chance. Eventually opportunity presents itself in the form of Water Wizz, a local water park run by a group of developmentally challenged locals led by Owen (Sam Rockwell). In time, Duncan lands a job, and starts digging himself out of his hole. And that's where things get fun.
The strength of "The Way Way Back" comes from the contrast it paints between bouts of miserable awkwardness and transcendent joy. Rather than rely on twists and turns of plot, the story pulls in the audience as it is cheering on Duncan’s coming of age.
The film also benefits from fantastic casting. Janney is perfect as the hysterical neighbor who always offers one piece of information too many. Rockwell is a riot as the quick-witted man-child who exists in a haze of improvisation. Most fascinating of all is Carrell, playing against type and making even the worst of his Michael Scott moments on TV's "The Office" seem heartwarming next to the cold, unlikable heel who is Trent.
But in spite of these imposing performances, James' take on Duncan is more than worthy, giving the audience plenty of reason to empathize and reflect on their own awkward teenage memories. Duncan strikes a perfect balance as a character wise beyond his years, yet oblivious to the ways of the world.
"The Way Way Back" is the perfect kind of movie for adults who are far enough removed from adolescence to appreciate its hilarity, and eternally grateful that they'll never have to endure it again. Its themes and some content are certainly more appropriate for an adult audience. But it's also a sad reminder that maturity does not always come with age. Just as in last year's "Moonrise Kingdom," often it's the children who have the better grasp on morality than their flailing parents.
"The Way Way Back" is rated PG-13 for adult themes and some sexual content. While there is no explicit content (even its sole use of the F-word is muffled), it is definitely targeted at an adult audience.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.