Teen films, particularly of the Sundance variety, tend to exaggerate their subjects. The bad guy is especially vile, the awkward kid feels a bit too abnormal, the wise sage is a little too pragmatic. The trend had been subverted and downright rejected with recent Sundance films like The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now, with both films establishing themselves as more astute reactions to the aforementioned exaggerations of contemporary teen films. The Way, Way Back, sharing the same festival release pattern as The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now, unfortunately does nothing to develop the good-will established by those same films. Instead, it is an exercise that plods its way forward with the same amplified sense of awkwardness and quirks that has become a staple of indie cinema. The Way, Way Back treads water as it deploys overused plot mechanics and tired character traits that achieves little more than being a conglomeration of the Sundance aesthetic.
On his summer vacation, Duncan (Liam James) accompanies his recently divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Duncan is something of a wandering outsider to the adults around him, perpetually shot in disappointing awe as the film’s grown-ups embark on late-night, drunken escapades. The sharp contrast between adolescence and adulthood is compounded by Duncan’s rivalry with Trent. Pompous and aggressive, Trent’s verbal spats with Duncan border on abusive, often exposing the teen’s insecurities for all those to gawk. With no particular reason to hang around the adults and growing resentment of his mother, Duncan’s explores their vacationing beach town, canvassing much of The Way, Way Back’s narrative. It’s not especially engaging, particularly given Duncan’s absurd awkwardness – at times, one cannot help but get behind Trent’s demeaning rhetoric when the young boy is incapable of stringing together words. The stilted dichotomy here is simple: writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash attempt to humanize a character by charting a trajectory that allows him to overcome an overwhelmingly evil obstacle. But the problem stems from the inherent dullness of the lead and the natural charisma of his obstacle.
Most vital to The Way, Way Back is Steve Carell slumming as a chauvinistic jackass. His presence instills a sense of restrained command to Faxon and Rash’s script, which mostly opts for clichés and extremes. This is the case for young Liam James, who is handicapped by material that lacks depth and, well, speech for that matter. With dialogue filled with enough ums and ahs to constitute a contribution the mumblecore movement, The Way, Way Back positions James as the victim of blunt force by overacting from the likes of Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Absorbing the rhetoric of the film’s vast supporting cast like a sponge, James is given little in the way of an emotional arch. Even as Faxon and Rash yearn for moments of sweeping emotional gravitas, the effort lacks punch because they’ve failed to create a living-breathing human character worthy of accepting it. Instead, we’re co-opted by poorly constructed characters who are defined less by human traits but rather by quirk. The Way, Way Back yearns for humanity and pleads to be taken as a genuinely touching coming-of-age story. But when so much of the film runs with a sense manufactured malice: telling the difference between moments of honesty and falsehood should not be this difficult.