Halfway through this movie, my wife turned to me and asked me if I found Toni Collette at all attractive. Newsflash, guys, these can be dangerous questions! You gotta think before you answer. Honestly, though, there is simply nothing sexy about Toni Collette, at least not in her movies. I think she's an excellent actress, and certainly not ugly, but in her film roles she always plays these characters whose life has gone to crap, and her face seems designed to express misery. When she smiles, it seems to take a massive effort of will to move her facial features up from their natural, hang-dog position, and the effect is always one of smiling through the pain.
In “The Way Way Back,” Collette plays yet another single mom struggling to smile through the pain, but the movie isn't really about her. The protagonist is her 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James), who is miserable at having to spend the summer with his mom, her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and the boyfriend's bitchy teenage daughter. The thing about Trent is he's a bully, but not the typical, get-drunk-and-slap-your-woman bully. He comes across as a nice guy, but he's really all about himself. He constantly undermines Duncan in the guise of acting as a father figure.
To escape, Duncan wanders the beach town where they are spending the summer, and he winds up meeting the staff of the local water park, including Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph. This kooky bunch become like a family to Duncan, and their kind acceptance allows him to blossom and become a man.
The plot is entirely too “After School Special,” but the strong cast manages to pull this one off. Carrell plays a very convincing jerk, and Toni Collette, of course, is right in her element as an aging single Mom whose last great romantic prospect isn't really all that great. Sam Rockwell is really charming as the irreverent water park manager. It's the star, Liam James, who really carries the movie though. He starts the film as a slumped-over wallflower, and by the end he has literally found a backbone. His use of posture to portray Duncan's transformation reminds me of Kevin Spacey's work in “American Beauty.”
What is the way, way back? The title refers to the rear-facing seat in the far back of Trent's station-wagon, but it is also a metaphor for Duncan, his water-park friends, and anyone else who doesn't exactly fit in. It turns out that when the misfits of the world support each other, the way way back isn't such a bad place to be.
3 stars out of 5