The coming-of-age tale "The Way, Way Back" is sweet, heartfelt and utterly trite and predictable from beginning to end. The movie marks the directorial debut of screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who frequently collaborated with Alexander Payne and won an Oscar for their script for "The Descendants." Their new movie attempts to establish the same wide range of emotions and off-kilter humor typical of Payne’s pictures ("Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways"). But the film relies too heavily on hackneyed situations and stock characters to leave much of an impression.
You sympathize with 14-year-old Duncan ("The Killing’s" Liam James), who hates his bully of a stepfather (Steve Carell) and feels neglected by his mother (Toni Collette). But you also know exactly what’s going to happen after he befriends a water park manager (Sam Rockwell) who has a voracious appetite for fun and starts helping the repressed kid out of his emotional straitjacket.
Yes, this is another movie about The Summer That Changed Everything — covering the thematic territory that "The Kings of Summer," released last month, explored in a much more original and creative way. The main attractions in "The Way, Way Back" are the performances. Carell is a revelation as an opportunistic hypocrite who constantly criticizes Duncan for his lack of motivation: The actor is just as good at playing odious as he is at being funny. Collette is good, too, as the naively supportive wife who doesn’t see the same things in her new husband that her son sees, and opts to play peacekeeper instead of mother until her eyes are forced open.
Rockwell is the undeniable soul of the movie as Owen, a free-spirited guy whose arrested development is portrayed as a good thing, not bad. The actor emphasizes the sensitivity and good intentions of his cliched character, giving human dimensions to what could have come off as a stock plot device. And James is great as the sad-eyed, sullen Duncan, preventing the boy’s morose mood from ever feeling stale and expressing as much with his eyes as he does with his dialogue. There’s an undeniable emotional lift when he finally begins to emerge from his cocoon (the first time he smiles feels like a triumph).
But none of this is enough to overcome the been-there, done-that aura that hangs over the movie. "The Way, Way Back" is eager to please and often amusing (there’s a good running gag about a kid’s lazy eye, and a funny bit involving mangled lyrics to an ’80s pop song). But this puppy dog of a movie never aims for anything more than that.