Those two come in the form of (wait for it) a Father Figure and Hottie-Yet-Hip Girl Next Door. The former is Owen, played by Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths) who, by virtue of his unique persona, is the film's highlight. He's cool, clever, and despite his rule-breaking swagger also has the nurturing inclination to take Duncan under his wing – plus he owns a water park at which Duncan can land a job, build some self-confidence, and find a surrogate family (via the quirky, accepting staff). Rockwell is fantastic, very entertaining, and does what the filmmakers can't: elevate an archetype to something unique.

As for the Hip Hottie Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer), she's different than the local mean girls. She's smarter, more sophisticated, intuitive, and mature. You can tell instantly by the Rolling Stones tee she wears. But her attraction to Duncan is embarrassingly forced.

She begins by reaching out, and he sulks. She reaches out some more, and he sulks some more. Inexplicably undeterred, Susanna keeps pursuing Duncan until she sees him in his element at the water park amongst his new friends, and a connection sparks (via a day-long montage; eye roll). In other words, this is a Nerd Boy-turned-Filmmaker fantasy trying to pass itself off as realism for about the umpteenth time since the 90s.

Then there's the crew Duncan's dealing with at the beach house, primarily Trent, who's a real jerk of the passive-aggressive order; his put-downs are cloaked in motivational clichés. The only point of the familial melodrama is to serve as basis for Duncan’s angst, as well as a subplot arc for his mom to move on from her co-dependent compromises in the wake of divorce. Carell and Colette are solid, and Carell plays well against type, but their characters serve a function more than anything else.

Along with Rockwell, the other breath of fresh air here is a resorting neighbor played by Allison Janney (Liberal Arts). She arrives like a gregarious whirlwind – laughing, joking, teasing, a drink never far from her hand, and always speaking her mind (including the occasional double-entendre). She's a real hoot, and a welcome spice to these rather perfunctory proceedings.

Ultimately we aren't watching characters in a story, but pawns on a narrative chessboard, moving not by motivation but simply by how, when, and where Faxon & Rash need them to be. It's all by design but to a fault, contrived rather than organic, right down to the "waterslide urban legend" build-up early on that predictably comes back around to serve as a climactic anchor.

When Descendants co-writer and director Alexander Payne hogged the mic during the Oscar speech for Best Adapted Screenplay for that film, I wondered if he was unfairly overshadowing the real talents behind its success. After all, Faxon & Rash (sounds like a TNT legal drama, doesn’t it?) had been the ones to adapt the novel into a script before Payne came onboard. But if The Way, Way Back is any indication, Payne's the reason these two are Oscar-winners.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Casual drinking of wine, beer, and margaritas. Brief use of marijuana. Talk of doing drugs.
  • Language/Profanity: S-word used commonly throughout. Nearly a dozen uses of the A-word, two variations of the B-word, one F-word, a middle finger, and a handful of mild profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: A moment of intense kissing, including a butt squeeze. Another moment of a butt grab. A woman in a bikini is ogled by men; her body seen in close-up framings. Occasional sexual innuendos, references, and double-entendres are made. The T-word for breasts is used once. The L-word for having sex is used once. The D-word slang for male genitalia is used once.
  • Violence/Other: Some scuffles, but no real violence. 

Publication date: July 12, 2013