Just when you thought this summer in the multiplex was going to go the way of the usual clichés, an offbeat charmer splashes into view. That’s not to say that what we have in The Way Way Back is an obscure arthouser. The writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the writers of The Descendants, in their directorial debut here) have cooked up a refreshingly smart and subtle number that is also, categorically, a summer film about things going bump in the sea and sun. But it is also a film blissfully off to the left of the summer-film formula, with its blend of coming-of-age angles, family dysfunction, and emotional/existential riptides that feel more like a New Yorker short story than the sudsy slush of most Hollywood romps.
At the calm but troubled center of this story about converging families on summer vacation in a beach town in Massachusetts is our 14-year-old protagonist, Duncan (Liam James, in an understated, standout performance). As the film opens, we quickly get a sense of the strained dynamic between Duncan and his mother’s boyfriend, and wannabe new stepfather, played by Steve Carell (who exercises his special skill in playing detestable heels), which sets up the scenario of criss-crossing interpersonal energies, verging on — but not yielding to — the stuff of melodrama.
What better escape route from family relations and redefinitions than the local water park, Water Wizz, where the twisting, entrails-like water slides serve as a handy metaphor for the pent-up emotional life of the characters before us? There, our boy-man hero sets up a parallel, microcosmic home, with a surrogate father in the form of the hopelessly giddy and overgrown-adolescent manager (Sam Rockwell, nicely pumped with goofy fizz). Within this narrative structure, the film manages to touch on lurking anxieties and comic high jinks with a deftness that makes comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine relevant, but a bit off base, considering this film’s personal way of wrestling with an existing genre.
Here in the midsummer’s long yawning midsection, it may be premature to size up the spread of the 2013 cinematic summer crop, but The Way Way Back has strong potential to be deemed the proverbial Feel-Good Hit of the Summer, with the caveat that it banks on the delicate balances of angst and optimism, of quirk and heart.