At 16, we’re not inclined to entertain the thought that, just maybe, the oppressive and regimented adults in our life are actually right about a few things. That the self-absorbed brooding at which we excel so greatly can actually claim a few victims. These are the sorts of things that we learn later in life, which is why movies about teenagers (ostensibly written by adults) often come with that bump of self-awareness about the cantankerous habits upheld throughout the high school era. The Way, Way Back seems to set up for this sort of revelation — introducing Duncan (Liam James) as an unconfident, socially inept, family-loathing teen who has got to learn a few lessons about not only accepting himself, which he eventually does, but about accepting those around him… which he doesn’t.
Forgoing its coming-of-age identity, The Way, Way Back seems to stunt Duncan’s development just past the boost in self-esteem. After being carted off to spend the summer with his mother (Toni Collette), her douche of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his judgmental daughter (Zoe Levin), Duncan stumbles upon a world unlike any he’s ever known: the Water Wizz water park, “run” by golden hearted goofball Owen (Sam Rockwell). After continuing to alienate himself from his well-meaning mother and the thick-headed Trent, Duncan seems to find himself earning the affection of people like Owen, the rest of the water park’s fun-loving staff, and the diamond-in-the-rough neighbor girl Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
But we never quite understand where the interest stems from. Socially awkward and standoffish, Duncan makes no real effort to connect with any of these characters, shunning all attempts at consideration offered by his mother. Offered the contrast of Levin’s Steph, we understand that we’re supposed to think of Duncan as kind, sensitive, and “deeper” than the rest. But… he’s not. He’s shy. Not a particularly bad guy. But he’s not a particularly good guy, either.
And he never really learns to be. The film never asks Duncan to step up to the plate, open his mind to the pains his mother might be suffering in regards to his distance and her boyfriend’s mistreatment of her. There’s not a single act that Duncan performs in the movie that isn’t self-driven. Aside from learning to laugh a little bit louder, the character barely changes at all from beginning to end.
But his journey, while perhaps not emotionally successful, is a lot of fun. All scenes that pair Duncan with Owen — hell, all scenes with Owen at all — are remarkably enticing, acting as a catalyst to the viewer’s own fantasies about escaping our realities and diving into a carefree, mystical water park universe. The comically obsessed Owen’s little world involves gags, games, parties, and a romance with a cold shouldered Maya Rudolph, who is even a delight as the straight man character. Writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash offer a good deal of fun as one-note park employees — a sexually charged man child and a miserable park fixture with dreams of starting his life anew, respectively.
In fact, we experience everything Duncan does. We revel in the fun offered by Owen and his gang. We are oddly stimulated by the supercharged douchebaggery offered by Carell (fantastic in this bad guy role). But we don’t really learn anything, just as he doesn’t, which is the film’s only fatal flaw. In order for these summertime follies to have any value, they must offer their hero something. Sure, he has a good time, figures out how to relax a bit, and maybe even snags a few points in the self-esteem department. But by the end of The Way, Way Back, Duncan is no more a man, no better a person, than he is at the start. And for a coming-of-age story, that’s a pretty big problem.