The Way Way Back: not the ’80s, but might as well be 

Days of Summer Past

Days of Summer Past

"Remember when you were 6? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were gonna play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn, you chickened and ran. Remember that? You ever tell anybody that?"

That, you'll recall, is Harrison Ford's cop talking to Sean Young's replicant in Blade Runner, cruelly revealing that her memories have been implanted and aren't real at all.

The memories being made in The Way, Way Back, a well-cast but disposable coming-of-age comedy, feel no less manufactured (though much less Freudian, this being PG-13). It's everyone's nostalgia and no one's, a damp lukewarm American summer of lightly won wish fulfillment that hits the expected notes — a first kiss, a supercool adult role model, a low-impact victory over the pains of having divorced parents. It's not set in the past, but it relies on the idea that U.S. adolescence remains suspended in what looks and sounds like July 1985.

Well, doesn't it? If that season of The Goonies and Back to the Future and Real Genius wasn't some kind of pre-Internet multiplex zenith, nothing ever was. This fondly imprecise sense of a generation-old moment, of chlorine-scented towels at the pool and a world without bike helmets, is what the writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — whose screenplay for 2011's The Descendants won an Oscar — get right. (The title isn't about time but about space — the rearmost seat in an old station wagon.)

For The Descendants, the team worked from Kaui Hart Hemmings' firmly plotted, emotionally specific novel. This time, though, there's no source material. Not much happens in The Way, Way Back, other than 14-year-old hero Duncan (Liam James) learning to straighten his geek-hunched spine a bit on the walk to manhood.

In this enterprise, Duncan has an advantage that most boys don't: Sam Rockwell, here slowing his motormouth-fuckup routine to family-friendly speed as water-slide guru Owen. (The real fast talker is Allison Janney, purposely grating and therefore smartly deployed.) Owen gives Duncan a job, then delivers gently swaggering lessons on joke telling and girls and staying up all night. In a movie set where REO Speedwagon holds more sway than Facebook, their relationship (watched over by Maya Rudolph in what's basically a cameo) is endearing rather than creepy, a small grace for which we can thank both actors.

Toni Collette plays Duncan's mother, Pam, as cannily self-aware, then tragically oblivious. Steve Carell plays Pam's boyfriend as you'd expect just about any reasonably smart actor to play a salesman named Trent. Both do more than their share to suggest an actual relationship in which actual decisions may carry actual weight.

But Pam and Trent are narrow ideas, not characters. They're just more visible versions of the struggling, or else not very good, parents usually left offscreen in movies like, say, The Goonies. The kind of popcorn parents with much to learn from their teenage children, if only they'd listen. That's how it has always been in forgettable summer movies, though — and in The Way, Way Back that's OK.


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