This review was originally published on January 28, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Navigating a crowd-pleasing middle ground between the mopey introspection of "Adventureland" and the raucous summer antics of "Meatballs," "The Way, Way Back" marks an enjoyable, if patently safe, directorial debut from the Oscar-winning screenwriting team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash ("The Descendants").
Potential stepfather Trent (Steve Carell) is driving the reclusive Duncan (Liam James), Duncan's mother Pam (Toni Collette) and his own daughter (Zoe Levin) to his beach house in Cape Cod when he asks the teen to evaluate himself on a 10 point scale. Duncan guesses he's a six; Trent corrects him with a three in a misguided attempt to nudge the kid out of his shell. Soon growing weary of the daytime drinking routine held by Trent, Pam and their friends (Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet), Duncan sneaks off to nearby water park Water Wizz, and despite the fact that rampant sarcasm fails to track with him, motor-mouthed manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) hires him for the summer.
Of course, there's also a girl Duncan's age, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), living just next door, but like our pale and passive protagonist, she is often left on the margins in favor of funnier, more familiar faces. In fact, the joys of specific actors appearing can be assigned to each act: Janney's boozy floozy of a neighbor very nearly steals the show from the start ("My niece was raped last October. It turns out not even food courts are safe..."), Rockwell's droll delivery livens up our lead's working hours, while Collette reliably brings her heartache to the forefront once the film sprints to a close.
It's not James's fault that his lead starts out as too convincing a blank slate, unwittingly looking to add value to that three of his. He's a kid trying to grow up, surrounded by adults seemingly incapable of the feat, and Duncan only becomes more interesting as he tries to accept this fact in the face of harsh evidence. As such, who wouldn't rather hang out with characters played by the likes of Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and the writer-directors themselves, Groundlings alums each?
Faxon and Rush's screenplay doesn't deviate too far from formula, but their sturdy direction, bolstered by handsome production values, evokes a wistful sense of carefree summers and conjures up a potent amount of simmering teenage angst beneath the frequent chuckles. From the reunion of Carell and Collette to the pick-up by Fox Searchlight, the word around "Back" would have one convinced that it's the next "Little Miss Sunshine," yet even if it's never quite as effectively bittersweet, this manages well enough to make for its own pleasant and seemingly sincere sort of getaway.
SCORE: 7.5 / 10