The Way, Way Back taps into Generation X's nostalgia for the good ol' days, invoking Pac-Man and REO Speedwagon in a subtle homage to movies like The Flamingo Kid, in which teenage boys experience transformative summers on their way to adulthood. But these pop-culture signifiers contribute little to this contemporary coming-of-age tale set in a sleepy Cape Cod beach town. Each exists for no better reason than to give 30- and 40-somethings a reason to nudge one another. If that's the endgame, why not set the film in 1982? It's a mystery as much as it's a miscalculation.
The story centers on Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old child of divorce on extended vacation with his well-meaning mother (Toni Collette) and Trent (Steve Carell), her boyfriend from hell. Duncan's slump-shouldered demeanor expresses how he carries the weight of his unhappy little world. (At one point, his mother rhetorically asks if it's possible for him to look any more miserable; there's no question what the answer would be.) But Duncan's body language begins to change when Owen (Sam Rockwell), the somewhat irresponsible manager of the local water park, offers him a job. Before long, the socially awkward teen finds his self-esteem. The film's primary pleasure is watching Duncan's growing confidence, which can be found in the acceleration of his stride and the occasional unguarded smile. It's a likable acting turn, but the film does not always serve it honestly.
That's the central problem with The Way, Way Back: It's more manipulative than truthful. The pivotal conflict is between Duncan and his potential stepfather, a grossly insensitive man who belittles him at every turn. This incessant cruelty borders on emotional sadism and serves little purpose, given your immediate sympathy for Duncan in the first five minutes of the film, as he sits in the rear-facing backseat of Trent's station wagon. Pity poor Carell in this thankless, one-dimensional role that seems plucked from a Dickens novel.
Though the always-wonderful Collette conveys how loneliness and fear can blind us despite what we see, the original screenplay by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won Oscars for the screen adaptation of The Descendants) fails to show how this decent woman has ended up with such a jerk. Unsure about how to bring things to a close, the filmmakers hurry to an ambiguous ending that suggests things may improve for Duncan. The restrained sentimentality in these last few minutes is laudable. In fact, they may be the most credible moments in the entire movie.