There is no age restriction for growing up. We all do it in our own time, but sometimes we need a little push, as charmingly illustrated in The Way, Way Back, the latest effort from writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who wrote The Descendants and make their directorial debut here). The film follows Duncan, a teenager being dragged on a summer-long beach vacation with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), who happens to be a total dick. Duncan, like most broody teenagers, is an introvert. He comes from a broken home and doesn't feel like his feelings or thoughts matter, so he often keeps to himself. When he meets new people, he can hardly speak and has a tough time opening up because he's not used to anyone actually listening.
But then he meets the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) and the owner of a local water park called Water Wizz, and he starts to understand that there's a world out there beyond his own agonizing microcosm.
The Way, Way Back is a solid directorial debut for Rash and Faxon, who also co-star in minor roles as employees of Water Wizz, working under manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who, like Duncan, needs to do a little growing up. And while not all the jokes land and at times the film feels as though it's getting in the way of its own story with its focus on trying to make the dialogue as snappy and rapid-fire as possible, there's something almost nostalgic about the effort, which hearkens back to coming of age comedies of the '80s and early '90s.
Though it feels messy and sometimes over-stuffed, the film works best when it gets to the core of these characters. Duncan isn't the only one who needs to grow up and find his own way, and it's by helping the adults around him do the same that he's able to find some breathing room. Owen struggles with reconciling his responsibility of the water park with his own arrested development -- living in a water park for most of the year isn't exactly inspiring him to be an adult, and his love interest and employee Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), has been trying to get him to wise up for years to no avail. Duncan needs Owen to be a father figure of sorts, to teach him that he has worth and there is so much more in the world waiting for him beyond his tormented teenage years, while Duncan sort of forces Owen into responsibility.
It's only when we're faced with real consequences that we start to take action. For Duncan those consequences are remaining introverted and closed-off to the world around him, but when you fence off the bad, you're also keeping out so many positive possibilities. For Owen, the prospect of losing the one person who won't put up with his shit is too much to bear.
But it's not just this man and this teenager who need a reality check -- Duncan's mom, Pam, is also struggling. Her boyfriend is a Class A asshole, but as a single, divorced mother who's had her heart broken before, she's scared of losing someone, even if that someone is a jerk. And man, Steve Carell plays asshole unnervingly well. He's never obnoxious or over the top; he's just selfish, petty, and knows how to manipulate the crap out of everyone around him in a way that's horrifically casual.
Thematically speaking, The Way, Way Back is beautiful -- in addition to being a charming coming of age movie, it also confronts how we stand in the way of ourselves and fail to see our own self-worth as human beings. If Pam had more confidence, she could leave Trent; if Duncan can come out of his shell, he can open himself up to wonderful experiences and discover that there are people who will listen and do understand him; and if Owen can accept even the most basic responsibilities, he can be a better man.
While it doesn't always stick the landing and the plot threads feel a little clumsily tied, The Way, Way Back succeeds where it counts with its big, sloppy heart. Sometimes good intentions and emotional honesty are all a film really needs to speak to us, but Rash and Faxon are also able to make us laugh and chuckle through the seriousness, combining comedy and drama in a way that doesn't always feel organic, but will definitely make you smile.