Duncan (Liam James) is not looking forward to this. Spending a summer out at the Massachussets holiday home of Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend of his mother Pam (Toni Collette), is not his idea of fun, and the fourteen-year-old does not get along with him in any way, shape or form. Little wonder when as they drive out to the house and Pam and Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) are asleep since the journey is a long one, and the bullish man asks Duncan to rate himself as a person on a scale from one to ten. This isn't the conversation the boy wants, but he grudgingly goes along with it and answers he supposes he is a six. Oh yeah? asks Trent. I think you're more of a three.
Therefore from that opening scene in the car we can tell a lot of things about the relationships that are about to play out, such as Duncan needing a father figure who is not Trent, Trent less interested in improving the teen and more on keeping him under his thumb, and Pam having made the wrong choice if her son is to be believed. That's just for starters in yet another coming of age movie out of America's indieland, but this was better handled than most since it came from the minds of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who had already won Oscars for their script for The Descendants; if you enjoyed that film then chances are you would appreciate this one as well, along with knowing exactly what to expect.
This kind of drama was nothing new, true enough, so often it depended on the humour that could be injected into the telling to elicit a degree of sympathy with the confused lead character, and for a while it looks as if that humour will be of the painful variety as Duncan could not possibly feel more out of place when he is expected to visit the beach with the terminally disinterested Steph; socialising just doesn't appear to be in this kid's vocabulary, and you're far from surprised when you see the people around him, not just the passive aggressively judgemental Trent. Pam does her best to help, but her time is taken up with her partner and sustaining that bond, so we were in typical "grown-ups just don't understand" territory from the off.
On the other hand, needing somewhere to go to get away from this pressure, Duncan finds a water park to hang around in, not that he has a go on any of the rides, he just watches others having fun and mopes, which attracts the attention of one of the staff there. He is the impish rogue Owen (Sam Rockwell) who had a brief conversation with the boy over a game of Pac-Man, and now thinks he has a mission to cheer the miseryguts up, which given he is the funniest character in the movie (with some rivalry from Allison Janney's neighbour Betty, but she's not in this enough) should be a piece of cake. And lo! Owen turns Duncan's frown upside down, and becomes the father figure Trent fails so utterly at, so much so that Rockwell succeeds in making us want to be his friend as well.
When it came down to it, for all the complicated relationships, The Way Way Back was really quite simple, and that clarity was one of its strengths, so if it wasn't quite as moving as it wanted to be, with the final uplifting scenes tending towards the contrived - although how else would you have ended it satisfactorily? - in the main it was engaging enough to take a place among the better coming of age tales. If it was somewhat reminiscent of the then-recent Adventureland then that was no bad thing, and it was certainly more effective than the hugely overrated phoney baloney of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, largely thanks to James' performance as Duncan never being less than convincing as an awkward teen who has difficulty talking to people, and when he is taken under the wing of Owen you can well accept this would allow him to blossom without essentially changing who he was. There was a tentative romance too, with Betty's daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), which in a nice way never went too far, staying true to a story which spoke to the awkward everywhere. Music by Rob Simonsen.