"The Way Way Back" opens with a promising moment of fine character establishment. Duncan (Liam James) sits slumped in the back seat as his mom's boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) asks him to rank himself from 1 to 10. Duncan says he'd be a 6 but Trent calls him a 3. It's an uncomfortable moment in a film that's filled with awkwardness. The moment works especially well because Carell, who plays against type, truly sells it by acting like he truly believes he's helping Duncan out. He's just one of the many oblivious parents that populate the film.
Along with Trent, Duncan is accompanied by his mother (Toni Collette) and his step sister, who's essentially a teenage bully. Surprisingly, it is not the family, but their neighbors that make up the most entertaining part of the movie. Both Allison Janney, as walking TMI Betty, and her young son Peter (River Alexander), an overconfident goofball, steal every scene they're in. Betty's daughter Susanna (Anna Sophia Robb) is the girl next door to the lonely Duncan. For someone who is supposed to be a love interest, she sure is dull. It's often hard to tell who's side she's on as she weirdly switches between happiness and sulkiness at a moment's notice.
Duncan doesn't have any friends. None of the adults can figure out why, even though it seems pretty obviously to have something to do with the absence of his father. Duncan mainly wanders aimlessly and one day decides to get a job at a water park. It never really makes sense as to why Duncan gets the job, but it's most likely because he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who is the coolest person imaginable. He's like a surrogate older brother and father to Duncan at the same time.
The workplace scenes are the best the film has to offer. Maybe I'm biased, because they reminded me of my days spent lifeguarding in high school. Some of the characters at the waterpark remind me of people I know and worked with. Yet, some of them remain nothing more than caricatures. There's nothing wrong with goofy characters, but they can never leap off the screen unless they have clearer motives and seem like real people. So for now, Jim Rash is nothing but the lonely old employee and Maya Rudolph is nothing but the boss with a stick up her butt. Even Owen, who is a standout thanks to Rockwell's performance, seems like a shell of a human, because his man child nature is barely glossed over.
It is also problematic that Liam James can't make our lead character likable or even relatable. It's not a problem that Duncan is awkward. The real problem is that it takes so long for him to open up that the moments of silence were just making me cringe. While silence can sometimes be more powerful than words, too much of it can lead to a lot more to be desired. Also, James never fully gets us on Duncan's side. Duncan's eventual outburst feels misplaced, as if they were scrambling for a proper moment in the film for it.
This is all a shame, given that "The Way Way Back" is written and directed by the excellent duo of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Both of them managed to bring the characters of "The Descendants" to life with such love and detail that they transcended all Hawaiian stereotypes. It is surprising that they couldn't do the same with all the Cape Cod vacationers.
"The Way Way Back" certainly has its moments. I usually like movies which put great detail into the little things. However, there just isn't enough to equal a complete whole. Good movies like that will let all the little details come together to complete the picture. "The Way Way Back" focuses too much on moments, and not enough on coherence.