The Way, Way Back is a crowd-pleasing summer treat, predictable in its sweetness but satisfying all the same. It's like the multinationally branded ice cream sandwich you get on any pier in the Western Hemisphere — market-tested to appeal to as many people as possible (but that you don't mind gobbling up).
Though the script includes bits and pieces of writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's real childhoods, it's a slick debut that feels like a recycling of familiar coming-of-age materials. It even shares with The Descendants, for which Faxon and Rash won an adapted screenplay Oscar, the premise of mopey teenagers in beach settings upset with the paternal figures in their lives. It doesn't help that this is the third (male) coming-of-age tale in as many months, the other two being Mud and The Kings of Summer.
The film's sympathetic but indistinct center is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a hunched, shambling, inarticulate boy whose loneliness weighs him down as much as his slightly out-of-date Bieber bangs. He's an everyteen we're supposed to feel sorry for — his parents are divorced, his mom (Toni Collette) has found herself a dick boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), he doesn't have the sense not to wear long pants to the beach — but he's so devoid of personality that we wish happiness for him only in the reflexive way we want to pet a sorry-looking puppy. Duncan is driven into further solitude on one of those summer trips that's really a test of emotional fortitude: an extended stay at Trent's beach house. He's apparently so lost there he can only entertain himself by looking forlorn until an adult comes to talk to him out of pity.
For the most part, though, the grownups ignore Duncan, too busy trying to recapture their own adolescence. His mom, Trent, and his friends and neighbors (Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, and Rob Corddry) enjoy their "spring break for adults," drinking late into the night and openly indulging in pot in front of their children. They make an informal game of outdoing each other's double entendres, their raunchy jokes papering over the reality that sex has undone their lives and marriages. In a less kid-centered film, the adult quintet's sangria-chugging and sexual jealousies might make for a volatile chamber drama, but here their rowdy shenanigans are neutered — they're all just illustrative props to Duncan's growth.
Among the middle-aged party animals, Janney charms as Betty, a well-meaning, ebulliently pushy neighbor, in spite of the script's role for her as a kind of female grotesquerie. "My titties need some color," she explains by way of inviting herself and her two children on a boat ride, her breezy brazenness a breath of fresh air. But she doesn't have much to offer Duncan either, other than the friendship of her son, Peter (River Alexander), a foul-mouthed kid with a lazy eye and as much verve in his frog-patterned eye patch as Duncan has throughout the film.
Like an angel in gas-station aviators, in swoops Owen (Sam Rockwell), the slacker manager of the dated-as-disco Water Wizz water park, to save Duncan from his misery. Child-labor laws be damned, Owen hires Duncan and introduces him to the world of "cool" grown-ups — much cooler to teenagers than to other adults — at the Wizz, including a no-nonsense, nearly no-fun Maya Rudolph and co-directors Rash, amusingly tetchy, and Faxon, memorable only for his crooked teeth. The script is stingy with Owen's past, making him more of a plot device (a dude ex machina) than a character. But Rockwell's virtuosic improvisations add depth and shading to his character, suggesting a smart guy too comfortable being idle to get on the road.
Owen performs alchemy on Duncan, transforming him from a mini-Lurch with a lead tongue and two left feet into the water park's golden boy. But the magic is too strong; the transformation feels like a sleight of hand. The effect is like watching Pinocchio in reverse, in which a real boy, after a few lessons from his father figure and a series of aquatic adventures, learns to be a simulacrum of one. Duncan becomes a model employee, a respectable dancer, and the recipient of a kiss from a girl hot enough to be the star of a CW show (AnnaSophia Robb of The Carrie Diaries). His accumulation of movie-cliché moments is fun to watch, but his streak of spectacular luck isn't ever quite credible. Like those ice-cream sandwiches, the ending is pumped with too much sweetener.