So here’s the latest cinematic scoop on the New American Family: The kids are all right — or would be if the grownups stopped acting like stoked toddlers and got with the program.
That may or may not be true in real life. From where I sit, helicopter parents pose a more potent threat to child development than footloose adults. But the proposition will strike joy into the hearts of teenagers, who are the primary target audience for the brisk new movie The Way, Way Back. Adults are welcome too, but they should know they’re in for a drubbing.
Like others of its kind, this cheerfully profane dramedy shoehorns a coming-of-age parable into a domestic drama. Its big joke, edged with a hint of potential disaster, is a July 4 barbecue that plays out, in at least one unwilling participant’s eyes, as “spring break for adults.”
Fourteen-year-old Duncan, astutely underplayed by Canadian actor Liam James, carries his unhappiness in his rounded shoulders and shambling gait. You get the sense that Duncan has been holding a lot of stuff in. For a while.
And no wonder: His divorced, devoted but unevenly overprotective mother Pam (the always terrific Toni Collette) has dragged Duncan away from the father he adores to a seaside vacation with her new partner, Trent (Steve Carell).
Within minutes of their arrival Pam is drinking, dancing, doing a little furtive weed and trying not to notice that her betrothed comes on awfully pally with a comely neighbor. (And by the way, will someone please give the talented Amanda Peet a role as something other than a man-eating minx?)
Carell’s transition to serious actor has mostly had him playing lovable goofballs. But he has the watchful, furious eyes of an ax-murderer, or at least a soul-crusher, and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne) have deftly cast him in The Way, Way Back as the latter. No surprise, he’s pretty good as Trent, whose idea of responsible stepfathering is to maneuver Duncan into a psychological corner, then ask him what he’s doing there.
Pam sees this, but she doesn’t want to know it, so poor Duncan slinks off to sulk, act awkward around the promising blonde next door (Annasophia Robb), and ride a girlie bike around town — in the course of which excursion, he happens on a decaying water park. At the Water Wizz, it will not surprise you to learn, he finds a surrogate family among a motley assemblage of screwups and stalled strivers who offer him both character-building derision and unconditional acceptance.
The Way, Way Back isn’t exactly memorable, and strictly speaking it would do just fine on a small screen. But unlike the glib The Descendants, which is also about a hapless parent and his free-floating kids, it’s smart, funny and moving about human weakness. And it doesn’t divide the world into good and bad adults — not counting that one bona-fide creep and his clueless squeeze.
Faxon and Rash keep faith with what it feels like to be an adolescent wading through a world of adults who routinely fail to practice what they preach. But they also attend to the abject bewilderment that comes with trying to conduct oneself like an adult in a world that encourages childlike behavior.
Parental solidity comes in surprising packages in The Way, Way Back. Some will find Allison Janney’s manic neighbor offensive or implausible, and I’ll admit the character as written is a tad overdrawn. But this skilled actress gradually teases out of her boozy, oversharing chatterer an understanding woman who you’d want covering your back, and who treats her own children — and Duncan — as anything but incompetent infants.
The same goes for Sam Rockwell’s hilarious Owen, a foul-mouthed slacker at the Water Wizz and an influence no helicopter parent would allow within a mile of their child. Undisciplined and seemingly without career ambition, Owen understands what it means to be marginalized, misunderstood and ignored.
He’s also willing to do what every good-enough parent does: show up, observe, listen and support. To his own astonishment, he turns out to be the movie’s most unlikely role-model — and its most appealing.