This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The "way, way back" is the third row of seats in an old-fashioned long-frame station wagon, the row that faces the rear window. That's where 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) sits, brooding beneath his well-trimmed early Beatles haircut, as the movie opens. The vintage Buick is headed for the beach, and in the driver's seat is Trent (Steve Carell), a nasty piece of work who seems to take pleasure in demeaning Duncan.
In the seat next to Steve is Duncan's divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette). She desperately wants to believe that Steve is in love with her, and she hides in sleep as Trent prods Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10, and then triumphantly takes Duncan's modest numerical self-assessment and cuts it in half. "You're a 3," Trent snarls.
Slouching on the middle seat is Trent's snotty daughter, who is maybe a year older than Duncan and considers him to be a loser, which he sort of is, like many 14-year-old boys. Let's just say he is shy and wound tight and has self-esteem issues.
"The Way, Way Back" is an engaging, notably loose-limbed comedy about how Duncan learned to unwind and say yes to the considerable gifts of a summer by the sea. It was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote (with director Alexander Payne) the Oscar-winning script for "The Descendants."
The mixed foursome is headed for a cottage owned by Trent; and when they arrive, they are greeted by the irrepressibly chatty floozy next door, drink in hand, spilling secrets with every sentence she utters. Her name is Betty, and she is played spectacularly by Allison Janney, one of several fine actors who populate the ranks of the wayward adults in this beach colony. They soak up vodka, burn meat, do heavy flirting and occasionally buy a few joints from one of their kids.
Other than being on hand when their parents need dope, the kids are left pretty much to their own devices, which is the way they like it.
Duncan, unfortunately, is not included in those devices, so one day, sick of sitting alone on the porch hating Trent, Duncan finds an old bicycle and peddles into town. There he finds a shabby water park. He starts hanging around the park and befriends Owen, the guy who runs the place. Owen is loose in every way that Duncan is tight. Pretty soon, without the adults back in the cottage knowing it, Duncan has a job working at the water park; and Owen is schooling him in the philosophy of not taking anything too seriously.
Owen, played with a likeable flair for the devil-may-care by Sam Rockwell, becomes not so much a father figure as a nurturing older brother. Meanwhile, back at the cottages, the adults barely miss Duncan, being busy with their own sordid if sun-drenched soap opera.
As time goes along, Betty's very pretty and very smart daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), bored with the gossip and preening of other teenage girls, decides to befriend Duncan, who can't believe his luck. But every time he gets too happy, he finds himself confronted with Trent's mistreatment of his mother. His anger at Trent is mixed with jealousy in a believable mix, leading to a dramatic expectation that Duncan will do more about Trent than just stare at him with overt hatred.
Toward the end, the movie becomes a tad formulaic in its desire to tie up loose ends -- a climactic scene involving a race in a water slide is looming at least from the midpoint of the movie. But, all in all, "The Way, Way Back" is one of the best summer comedies in recent years -- well acted, cleverly written and nicely detailed.