Let us assume the title of The Way, Way Back refers to its young protagonist's self-assigned seat in the family station wagon, from which he bursts free, near the movie's end, to a heartstring-tugging swell of music and self-esteem. If so, the title itself might well be the movie's subtlest touch. The rest is comfortably obvious.
Writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning adapters of The Descendants, here co-direct their earlier script — which, as it happens, is another melancholic beach-house comedy of sympathetic middle-class white folks whose failed marriages are hard on their adolescent kids. Producers and actors from Little Miss Sunshine complete the cutely movieish family-dysfunction formula, with unsurprising but not unenjoyable results.
With his dad out of the picture, an awkward 14-year-old (Liam James) finds himself stranded on a seasonal vacation, drifting further apart from his divorced, well-meaning mom (Toni Collette) and her douchey new beau (Steve Carell). It is strenuously established that the kid could use a father figure, not to mention a fun summer, and so, soon enough, he lucks into some emotional tutelage from a friendly water-park manager (Sam Rockwell) who helps him come of age. (This only works because the older man, for all his wisdom, has somehow managed to avoid turning into a grown-up.)
Consequently, our young hero does all right with the perfectly available pretty blonde girl (AnnaSophia Robb) next door, and ultimately, most importantly, even summons enough self-possession to redraw the boundaries within that station wagon.
TWWB's supporting cast includes Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry and an under-used Maya Rudolph, all generously doing their duty to nudge the awkward and the feel-good moments forward. Young Liam James carries the film on his shoulders just as he should, but most of the time they're affectedly slumped.
It's Rockwell who's the highlight here, exuding great warmth, wit and just enough irony to make his character's fast-accumulating bromides seem savory. Actually, the word "character" might be an overstatement of Rockwell's contribution; it's really more an attitude.
As if helplessly fixated on its fictive central relationship, TWWB often speaks to its audience as a 40-something person speaks to an adolescent. Sometimes the effect is poignant, as in plaintively addressing a younger self. But sometimes it seems both regressive and intrusive: Hey, bud, aren't we having a good time here, making these memories?
And maybe it's more a matter of their priorities than skills, but Faxon and Rash, who both work as TV actors, seem more adept at chummy ensemble camaraderie than anything resembling big-screen vision. Reportedly, this script is what landed them the gig adapting The Descendants for director Alexander Payne, but it took the Oscar win to afford them a chance to make TWWB.
You'd think this movie might therefore feel more urgent — a long-simmering passion project, realized with great relish. But more often it feels like an old project, so thoroughly dusted with Gen-X nostalgia that it may have been truer as a period piece.
Maybe a confetti of 1980s pop culture references is automatically required by the theme-park-summer conceit. On that front, Faxon and Rash do manage to avoid the trying-too-hard vibe of Adventureland, even if they err on the side of not trying hard enough.
And they do capture something familiar about how pre-adulthood summers feel, at least to middle-class white folks. Angst happens, of course, but comfortable obviousness is also what makes it a vacation.