The Way, Way Back is a lightweight coming-of-age summer holiday comedy/drama, often funny but rarely convincingly dramatic. Much like After May, it places at its centre an actor not quite up to the task – here, Liam James as the introverted, awkward teenager Duncan. He’s not supposed to be particularly charismatic, but James finds little reason for us to be invested in the character’s struggles, as he tries to come to grips with his own identity in a splintered family (his mother (Toni Collette) has taken up with a douchebag boyfriend played by Steve Carell).
Without a substantial focal character, attention shifts to the supporting cast who are, thankfully, excellent across the board. Duncan escapes the drunken antics of his family to spend his days at a rundown waterpark, whose employees grant the film a breezy charm. There’s the always-reliable Maya Rudolph and small roles for screenwriter/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, but the true standout is Sam Rockwell. He’s outgoing, brash, hilarious and sad all at once; it’s an attention-grabbing performance and the best reason to watch the film.
There could’ve been a genuinely great movie with Rockwell’s Owen as its focus; instead, The Way, Way Back is merely good.