Like 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) in the rear-facing third bench seat of his would-be stepfather’s pre-minivan era Buick station wagon, The Way, Way Back by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is backward-looking. Though ostensibly set in the present day, it evokes the same period as the car — and, one suspects, a time when the filmmakers were the same age as Duncan. It was a time, as I seem to remember it, when everyone was getting divorced and lots of people who had ventured into a tentative flirtation with adulthood, many of them already parents themselves, were rejecting it in favor of reversion to an adolescence they were afraid they had missed. And, indeed, we can believe that in this Massachusetts seaside town where the kids spend their days at a down-at-heels water park while the adults drink beer and smoke pot, little has changed since the 1980s. At all events, we can well believe that this is a world in which a disaffected 14-year-old boy has his pick of “developmentally challenged” adult males to act in lieu of his absent father.
One of these, Owen (Sam Rockwell), is open and unashamed about his refusal to grow up while the other, Trent (Steve Carell), his mother’s boyfriend and owner of the sta-wag, is a hypocrite: an apparently responsible adult and father to an older teen, Steph (Zoe Levin), who occupies the second seat of the Buick and has nothing but disdain for Duncan, but who is selfish and bad tempered generally and cruel and uncaring towards Duncan. Later we learn that he smokes dope on the sly and secretly cheats on his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), with the wife of a close friend. As one of Steph’s friends who join her in tormenting the awkward Duncan puts it, their seaside town is “like spring break for adults” — only these are adults who deny their own adulthood quite as emphatically as but much less openly or enjoyably than Owen does. His childishness turns out to be liberating and life-affirming rather than repressive and life-denying, and so his dubious lessons to Duncan in how to be — well, hardly a man, but an adult-seeming male — are affirmed by the filmmakers.
The movie is almost stolen by Allison Janney as Betty, the drunken, sex-starved next door neighbor and divorcée who shows that irresponsible parenting is not limited to the male sex. There are some moments of sharp observation as well as toe-curling embarrassment on behalf of poor Betty, whose druggie elder son is only glimpsed for a moment and whose younger son, the lazy-eyed Peter (River Alexander) is eventually taken under Duncan’s wing — as Duncan himself is under Owen’s — and so is given his introduction to fun, teenage style, instead of the solitary pleasure of his Star Wars action figures. The middle child of Betty’s three, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), slightly older than he, becomes Duncan’s love interest. She is a kindred spirit, too, and similarly disgusted by being cut off from her father — though the father in his case seems to have done the cutting off while in hers it is her awful mother who keeps her from him.
The Messrs. Faxon and Rash, who also appear in minor roles among the fun crowd at the pool, go where the love is, thus taking Edie Brickell’s advice which plays the movie out over the closing credits. Needless to say, the love is with Owen and his gang of kidults at the pool where Duncan finds a job, a girlfriend and a world where he feels he belongs. Unfortunately, the fun is likely to pall on viewers over 14 more quickly than it does on Duncan. More importantly, it limits too severely anything we might otherwise have seen either of Betty or of the unhappy couple of Trent and Pam, all of whom could have been, given a little more screen time, much more interesting characters than the fun but uncomplicated folks at the pool. The filmmakers themselves realize that Owen, though way better than Trent, is no substitute for Duncan’s absent father. That means that the movie is pretty much limited to being a teen comedy with little that is interesting to say about parents and children, as it first seems to want to do.