the-way-way-back-posterI wasn’t born in a country where the station-wagon has attracted any degree of popularity, and nor did I spend my formative years in a big family whose travel necessitated a people carrier. We all managed to fit in a Citroën AX, thank you very much. So “the way, way back” is a phrase that had to be explained to me. In the world of being a passenger in a car, you can sit in the front, the back, the way back, or the way, way back, which is essentially sitting in the boot space, facing the direction of where you’ve just been rather than where you’re heading to.

So the way, way back is literally where shy 14 year old, Duncan, (2012‘s Liam James) finds himself at the start of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s latest offering, sharing a car with his mum, Pam (Toni Collette), his mum’s overbearing new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his mum’s boyfriend’s daughter (Zoe Levin) as they head to a beach house in Massachusetts where they’ll be spending the summer together. Figuratively, that’s where he is too, something of an outsider in his own family. So. Awkward teenager on vacation reinvents self. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

The first act of the movie is pretty pedestrian stuff. Because the premise and themes are so bereft of surprise, there really needs to be something happening in the first few scenes to grab the attention. There isn’t. We get lots about what’s driving these characters, but very little in the way of plot development to push the rather obvious story along. We know before we sit down that this is going to be a summer of discovery for young Duncan. We know very early on that Trent is bit of a dick and is probably playing away from home. We get the impression that Toni Collette’s character is rather downtrodden and probably scared of another relationship failing, desperate to fit in. These things, and more, are established while the popcorn is still warm but it’s reinforced so much that I ended up struggling to keep my eyes open.

And then we’re introduced to Sam Rockwell’s character, Owen; the owner of a scuzzy water park that satisfies the aquatic needs of those not rich enough to spend their summer days on a private beach, and he is utterly fantastic. He’s funny. He’s charming. He’s warm. Put simply, he steals the show and his performance is one of my favourites of the year so far. When he offers Duncan a job at the water park, he becomes the catalyst for Duncan’s metamorphosis and from here, the script sparkles, the jokes find their target with much more regularity, and even though the journey is heading to a predictable end, much like the rides at the water park, getting there is great fun.

Performance-wise, the adult actors are as good as you’d expect from a quick scan of the poster, although it does take a while to get used to Steve Carrell being such a dick. And given that the movie is billed as a comedy-drama, Carrell gets not one funny line — not one — which feels as though his involvement in this project stemmed from a worm hole in the space time continuum that worked its way to a parallel universe. It’s a little difficult and unnatural to watch this morally questionable Machiavellian character spin his web of deceit one moment, and then expect him to declare his love of lamp the next.

The kids, though, are a bit hit and miss. Duncan’s love interest, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb off of Jumper and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory), is capable but not really asked to do much that’s especially tasking. But it’s Liam James’ interpretation of Duncan that is probably least convincing. There are moments where you think he’s doing a great job with his awkward teenager remit, but then there are moments where the awkwardness itself seems awkward and a little bit forced and slightly stale. River Alexander, who plays Duncan’s friend, the lazy-eyed Peter, is the stand out of the younger cast and despite being the youngest, he’s the one showing the others how it’s done. It’s just a shame he didn’t have more screen time.

All this said, overall it’s a very enjoyable telling of a very familiar tale which easily delivers more than the minimum laugh-out-loud count required to be deemed a full-fledged comedy. With a stronger opening, it would be great. And with a running time of a little over 100 minutes, it’s something of a joy to discover that not all movies think they should last three hours.