MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Way, Way Back'


Special Photo: Fox Searchlight Liam James, left, stars as Duncan and AnnaSophia Robb stars as Susanna in Fox Searchlight's "The Way, Way Back."



4 out of 4 stars

For the follow-up to their masterful drama "The Descendants," Oscar-winning co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash also assume the roles of co-directors in this beach/vacation coming-of-age comedy that rivals "American Graffiti" in scope, intelligence, knowing humor and emotional depth. Teetering between Disney channel hokum and precious art-house-twaddle during its twee-riddled opening scenes, "The Way, Way Back" quickly gains its footing and strides confidently toward a riveting and richly rewarding conclusion.

Surrounded by a truly stellar supporting cast, relative unknown Liam James stars as Duncan, a 14-year-old boy we meet at the peak of his awkward stage. Pale, withdrawn, borderline anti-social with a major case of fumble mouth, Duncan is still reeling from his parents' divorce and is none too happy with his passive-aggressive mother Pam's (Toni Collette) lout of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). It also doesn't help that Duncan is forced to spend time with Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), who is almost as rude and unlikeable as her father.

As soon as the odd quartet arrives at Trent's New York summer home, Duncan does everything he can to avoid contact with everyone -- and for good reason. Trent's neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) is an alcoholic floozy who dresses age-inappropriate, laughs at her own unfunny, cringe-inducing remarks, and treats her own lazy-eyed son like a freak. Also good at bending their elbows are Trent's married couple friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). Kip is semi-oblivious and mostly harmless, but Joan -- though not quite as obvious as Betty -- can't handle her liquor very well and is something of a frustrated maneater.

The one bright spot for Duncan comes in the form of Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Betty's comely, super-cool daughter who takes an immediate dislike to Steph and gives Duncan every possible chance she can without being obvious to spend time with her. Yet he is either too clueless or petrified to catch her inviting drift.

Realizing there are only so many places he can hide in the house or near the beach, Duncan hops on Steph's old pink bike, heads farther inland and starts hanging out at a cheesy water park managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell). Not quite a slacker, Owen is still an underachiever in the deep throes of arrested development yet has loopy charm to burn and a deft ability to read people. He immediately recognizes that Duncan is in desperate need of unthreatening company and encouragement and drafts him as a park employee.

Soon becoming Duncan's hipster big brother/quasi-father figure, Owen offers the teen advice without overtly doing so; in other words -- he treats him like an adult and gently challenges him -- mostly with humor. Duncan starts smiling, gets a tan, develops some degree of self-confidence and begins to break out of his thick, confining shell.

In much the same manner as "The Descendants," Faxon and Rash (who assign themselves small roles as park employees) resist the temptation to go broad and rely completely on sharp and concise storytelling shorthand. There isn't a single scene, glance or word of dialogue that doesn't add something substantial. The filmmakers also employ silence to great effect. It is often the pregnant pauses, what the characters don't say, or their non-verbal reactions that tell us what they're thinking and who they are more than any words ever could.

It says a lot about a movie when the only thing you can find any fault with is its title. Many people might scoff and offer a "what's in a name" argument. But for a low-visibility, micro-budget production such as this, it could make a huge difference -- especially in overblown blockbuster-strewn mid-summer. It wouldn't be an issue if the beyond-clunky title figured into the mix somehow, but "way, way back" never does. If this was a period piece, maybe. That might make some sense and could act as a memory/reflection tease, but that's not the case, either.

Usually a kiss of death (but not here) is a last-ditch industry tagline on the poster and in the TV spots that states "from the studio that brought you ..." In this case those are "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno," which is accurate, but really, who really cares if it's from the same studio? Luckily, both of those titles are great films and were able to simultaneously appeal to both mainstream and arthouse audiences and walk away with an Oscar or two in the process.

Ignore the title and go see "The Way, Way Back." If you like it (you will), tell your friends and families with smarter-than-average teen children. (Fox Searchlight)