On a scale of 1-10 how do you see yourself? This is the question that starts off the summer for fourteen year old Duncan (James). It is posed by his mom’s new boyfriend, Trent (Carell) in what he considers a chance for the boy to loosen up. After much thinking Duncan offers up a 6. “No,” he’s told. “You’re a 3.”
Beautifully written and featuring a side of Steve Carell that is rarely seen on screen, “The Way, Way Back” is the directorial debut of screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who shared an Oscar with Alexander Payne for their script of “The Descendants” a couple years ago. Like that film, “The Way, Way Back” is filled with characters so real you could swear you’ve known them all your life. The story follows Duncan, his mother Pam (Collette), Trent and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) as they spend their summer on Cape Cod in Trent’s beach house. Of course they are surrounded by some crazy neighbors, including Kip and Joan (Rob Corrdry and Amanda Peete) and next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney). Betty is divorced with two kids: Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and Peter (River Alexander). Susannah is a year older then Duncan and misses her dad. Peter is dealing with a lazy eye and his mother’s wrath for constantly playing with his “Star Wars” dolls…sorry, action figures. Having nothing in common with anyone Duncan finds an old bicycle and rides it into town, where he is taken under the wing of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of Water Wizz, the local water park. Not only does Owen give Duncan a job, he also gives him the confidence to know that he is much more than a 3.
Kudos all around to the cast. Carell is in full “prick” mode here. The kind of guy that calls you “buddy” constantly and quibbles about the rules when playing Candyland. Collette is vulnerable as a woman hoping to find love again, sometimes ignoring her son for the sake of her new boyfriend. James, probably best known for his role on the television series “Psych,” is outstanding here. He’s in almost every scene in the film and he carries it easily. The supporting cast, which also includes Faxon and Rash, is equally good. But I must reserve special praise here for Janney and Rockwell. Both of them have always been underappreciated (in my opinion) and their work here is among some of their best. Faxon and Rash are more than competent behind the camera and the film flows smoothly, easily mixing laughter with tears without being heavy handed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on Oscar’s short list next year.