"This year's Little Miss Sunshine!" Ever heard that one before? No critic quote is used more often to advertise movies than that reference to Fox Searchlight's 2006 break-out hit, possibly because no other movie has so perfectly embodied an entire film genre since. LMS's very name brings to mind a plethora of particulars, from aesthetics to thematics: a down-on-their-luck band of middle-classe misfits, a soundtrack of moody indie hits, laughs, warm and fuzzies, and large, colorful font for both posters and credits. I wouldn't be so cynical if the studio itself wasn't; that aforementioned quote proved paramount to the advertising campaigns of Juno, (500) Days of Summer, Sunshine Cleaning, The Kids Are All Right, Win Win, Ruby Sparks, Moonrise Kingdom... you get the picture. This year's candidate is The Way Way Back, and, damn, if that Little Miss Sunshine tag doesn't fit like the world's snuggest glove...
Duncan (Liam James) is about as sullen as teens come; the boy observes most situations in complete silence, his face tilted toward the floor, eyes ever on the verge of tears. A summer on the beaches of Cape Cod might help with his blues, if only it weren't for Trent (Steve Carell), Duncan's mother's new beau, a man constantly straddling the line between poor motivator and flat-out bully. The hottest season is going horribly awry until Duncan stumbles across Owen (Sam Rockwell), the eccentric manager of a near-by water park. Wanting nothing more than to minimize his hours at home, the teen takes a job at the park, learning life lessons, gaining self-confidence, and remembering to laugh. Oh, and guess who the mom is? Toni Collette!!! You know, the mom from Little Miss Sunshine!
The Way Way Back is the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, a writing and acting duo last seen scooping up Oscars for penning The Descendants, a film whose myriad of problems re-occur here en-masse. The characters they write are paper-thin, often brought in just to remind the audience of the type of film they're attending, rather than advancing the plot. Drunk, zany neighbor (Allison Janney)? Check. Eccentric mentor figure with maturity issues of his own (Rockwell)? We've got you. A worried, weary mother too caught up in her love-life to properly observe her offsprings' troubles (Collette)? She's here too, shipped in over-night form LMS. It's the kind of movie where the dream girl is at one point observed reading a book so that now we know, for the rest of the film's runtime, that she's smart, reserved, sensitive, and a bit of an outcast, just like Duncan. If that's not lazy, I'm not sure what is.
Oh wait, maybe I do. How about plugging in montages where actual character development was meant to transpire? Sure, the technique isn't as egregious as it was on the pair's Academy Award winner (...yuck), but isn't Duncan's maturation from wallflower to human with agency kind of the crux of your movie? Maybe, I don't know, don't sweep it away with a pop song? A few words in the film's favor: Rockwell is great, if entirely predictable in his every action, in a role clearly tailor-made for him. Carell is great as the bad dad until the script simplifies his character in the name of directing audience sympathies. The movie's tone and pace are breezy, light, and often smile inducing, but rarely rousing in any sense of the word. Notice there's a, 'but,' in every compliment I can offer The Way Way Back: While the flick certainly hits some grace notes (infinitely more than The Descendants), the whole affair positively wreaks of, 'been there, done that,' a fact that proves all the more damning when your writing/directing team forgets to give their protagonist personality traits outside of, 'sad,' and, 'mopey.' It certainly could be worse, but with a cast like this, you'd be forgiven for having expected more than, 'ho-hum.'