Nostalgia is a pretty powerful, if superficial, thing. And, perhaps contrary to popular belief, it’s not just Baby Boomers that are susceptible – you only have to troll Buzzfeed for five minutes to start thinking that “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was essentially the next “Andy Griffith Show.” “The Way, Way Back,” the directing debut of screenwriting partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, peddles in the emotional impact of nostalgia – it’s familiar, sentimental and somewhat prone to romanticization. Even the film’s title, referring to the rear-facing trunk seat of Steve Carell’s inexplicable vintage hatchback, seems to be looking backward.
Yet, like reminiscing about one’s childhood, there’s quite a bit of pleasure in “The Way, Way Back”‘s simple, sweet tale of adolescent frustration. A likable stable of actors and an authentic attention to detail give the film a sense of genuine feeling. It’s not that the story itself, a generally predictable summer coming-of-age narrative, is particularly believable; but looking at it through the prism of nostalgia, as a tale spun by two grown men recounting a fond but complicated memory, it rings true.
Faxon and Rash’s on-screen surrogate is Duncan (Liam James), a cinematically typical awkward teenager forced to spend the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Carell) at his beach house on the Massachusetts shore. The film’s very first scene establishes Trent as a condescending, smug asshole, and unfortunately never seems interested in giving him any more shading than that – indeed, much of the film’s first act is concerned with Duncan’s constant humiliation, often in front of Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of Trent’s boozy, gregarious neighbor (Allison Janney, in top comedic form). The trip doesn’t seem to be a barrel of fun for Pam either, who struggles to fit in with Trent’s friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, mostly wasted in bit parts).
Seeking refuge from Trent’s grating parenting, Duncan takes to exploring the beachfront community on a bedazzled girl’s bicycle. He stumbles upon Water Wizz, a rather superfluous water park, which, like Pennsylvania’s Kennywood or New Hampshire’s Story Land or any number of other relics of the 1950s, is somehow still a real place. There he meets his obligatory mentor/superior father figure in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s slacker manager. Because this is the kind of film that looks back fondly at the times when you could get hired for a job at 14 without so much as a resume, Owen takes pity on Duncan and lets him help out at the Wizz. Duncan gets quickly inducted into the park’s ensemble of under-achieving, quirky supporting players, including Maya Rudolph and Faxon and Rash themselves.
There’s little to be surprised by in Duncan’s storyline – there will inevitably be dance contests and park records broken and the end-of-summer lean-in with the cute older girl. Where “The Way, Way Back” sets itself apart is the appreciation for the specifics of those New England beach towns and awkward summer vacations. A montage of the water park in the rain is totally unnecessary to the story but does everything to set up the pathetic frustration of the ensuing argument between Trent and Pam. Hell hath no greater punishment than a forced game of Candy Land on a rainy day.
Other seemingly useless shots – of spectacularly unattractive water park visitors, of Duncan biking down endless, “quaint” streets – ground the film in a very specific milieu, giving it a greater sense of atmosphere than some of its fellow entries in the indie coming-of-age genre (“Adventureland,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” etc.). One can practically smell the salt air and clambakes, feel the grit of sand between one’s toes, hear the roar of the surf…or at least what surf you can hear over the raucous, drunken beach barbecue being thrown by the neighbors two doors down.
“The Way, Way Back” also has a strangely firm grasp on the adult residents of such communities, and their tendency to both cut loose and unintentionally reveal all sorts of things about themselves on vacation. While the adolescent half of the film is mostly formula, there are surprises in store when it comes to the way the adult characters interact with each other. Anything to do with Pam especially breaks the expected model, and Toni Collette proves again here (after her work in “About a Boy,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and numerous other TV/film roles) why she might be the best on-screen mother in the business. There are major revelations and reconsiderations in this movie that occur entirely on her face, and her character is by far the subtlest and most human part of the film. The unexpected (but welcome) ambiguity of the film’s ending is almost entirely thanks to Pam’s decisions.
As mentioned, Allison Janney is also in fine form, taking an almost entirely comic role and still somehow managing to infuse it with sympathy and tenderness. Rockwell, meanwhile, is handed the most difficult task: Owen is given the vast majority of the film’s inspirational speeches and tired platitudes, but Rockwell is such a pro that he sells the heck out of them anyway. Newcomer Liam James is fine in the lead, but Duncan is more of a stand-in for every out-of-place young teen than a fully formed individual.
Seeing “The Way, Way Back” gives me the sneaking suspicion that Faxon and Rash contributed some of the more overbearing parts of the Oscar-winning screenplay to “The Descendants” (a credit they shared with director Alexander Payne). The film is nothing revelatory – for the most part, it’s an excuse to see some immensely talented actors go to work. But where it really deserves credit is the personality of its setting. There’s a very strong feeling that Rash and Faxon grew up in a place like this, went through difficult times like this, and made it through thanks to friends like this. It’s that particular touch of wistful recollection that gives life to “The Way, Way Back.”
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars