Director: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash // Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures // Release Date: August 28th // Starring: Liam Jones, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Alison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet and Maya Rudolph // Plot: Depressed at the thought of staying with his mother and her arrogant boyfriend at the latter’s summer beach house, taciturn teen Duncan (Jones) finds reprieve in his bond with Owen , the sarcastic but nurturing manager of the Water Wizz water park.
Review: Why Nat Faxon and Jim Rash leave it to sixteen-year old Liam Jones to find substance in their directorial debut is a mystery, especially with the likes of Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Allison Janney on the payroll.
To say that The Killing star comes up short is not to denounce his ability. His turn as despondent teen Duncan occasionally hits the right notes, particularly in a stilted ‘heart to heart’ with his mother’s snide boyfriend Trent (Carrell), who asks his potential stepson to rate himself out of ten. When met with a hopeful answer, Trent cruelly negates it. Jones matches Carrell’s almost overwhelmingly smug air with a squirming delivery that brilliantly conveys the awkwardness of adolescence. In a car with only Trent, his prickly daughter Steph, and Duncan’s sleeping mother Pam (Collette) for company, his performance appears stark and understated. With the arrival of Janney’s vivacious Betty – a one-woman Neighbourhood Watch who ambushes this makeshift clan the second they arrive at their summer beach house – Jones seems borderline catatonic.
There is surely some pathos to be mined from his disengaged performance, but Faxon and Rash work against it. Their screenplay reduces the adult cast to aggressive, sidelined ciphers. Yes, we get that a large portion of the grown-ups are complete train wrecks. They’re either too passive, selfish or frustratingly oblivious – but they’re also interesting to watch.
Sadly the same can’t be said for the film’s younger players (including an unusually wooden AnnaSophia Robb as a sympathetic friend of Steph’s) or the scenes set at Water Wizz, the shabby water park where Duncan finds solace and begins his coming-of-age story arc. How someone could think this would make for a remotely dynamic setting is a question that lingers throughout The Way, Way Back. One could surmise that a subplot involving the near-mythical ability to “pass” someone out on one of the slides represents a metamorphosis of some kind, but Faxon and Rash struggle to evoke excitement, leading to banal cuts between shots of rushing water and the slide’s blue, bubbled plastic.
The film’s saving grace is Rockwell as Duncan’s mentor Owen. Though the dry yet breezy humour that’s on offer to him gets a little repetitive, he loads his lines with a weary, ‘been-around-the-block’ attitude that suggests he is only one on board with a proper connection to the material.
Considering the talent involved, The Way, Way Back is an unforgivably dull film, with only Jones, Carrell and Rockwell making much of a splash.