Somewhere there’s a kid with a Wet ‘n’ Wild season pass, spending his summer brooding in the lengthy slide queues, burning his skin to KFC Extra Crispy levels and staring at girls he won’t get to date before they start dancing at Sapphire. But he’s probably escaping a worse fate of hanging around the house and enduring his dysfunctional Summerlin family.
In The Way Way Back, that kid is Duncan, played note-perfectly by Liam James. Stuck on a family-building trip designed by Trent, the unforgivably pushy boyfriend (Steve Carrell, playing against type) of his doormat mother, Pam (Toni Collette), the sullen 14-year-old must make the most out of a summer in a New England beach town that, ironically, is best known for its 33-year-old water park. For Liam, it’s not the oceanfront and its population of vacuous teenage girls that offers sanctuary from his new father figure and his venomous daughter (Zoe Levin), but Water Wizz. Upon running into its wisecracking manager, Owen (a riotous Sam Rockwell), he not only scores a summer job that keeps him out of the rental house, but a mentor, if unconventional, in Owen. Yet the newfound confidence instilled by his new employer would seem offset by the increasing tension caused by his mother, Trent and his absent father, across the country with his own new fling.
The Oscar-winning writers for 2011’s The Descendants — Jim Rash (who joins the cast as a bespectacled, sad-sack Water Wizz lifer, and otherwise bears a remarkable likeness to iconic fashion photographer Terry Richardson) and Nat Faxon (also a pervy slide attendant and, like Rash, the film’s co-director) — could have easily mocked, underplayed or overdone Duncan’s daddy issues. But they apply the right angstful touch just like that other coming-of-age flick at the amusement park, 2009’s Adventureland, albeit getting their actors to more effectively pull the heartstrings (especially since they weren’t hampered by the permanently wooden Kristen Stewart). Despite Rockwell’s Bill Murray-as-Peter Pan flippancy — one of a few likenesses this movie has with 1979’s Meatballs — Owen’s positive encouragement breaks through Duncan’s emotional walls, which James skillfully handles as a relative newcomer. The way the young thespian so naturally transitions between moods, and projects both charm and agitation, recalls Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first post-sitcom triumphs.
And let’s acknowledge the character-rich Water Wizz, which is so well filmed and used here, one could foresee the film’s local audiences going straight from the cineplex to Las Vegas’ own aquatic asylum.