Duncan (Liam Rockwell) is a socially awkward 14-year-old kid. And he's trapped. He's forced to accompany his mother, Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), to Trent's beach house for a summer holiday.
Duncan is less than thrilled to be making the trip – he believes (correctly) that Trent is no good. At the beach house, Duncan is quickly abandoned by Pam, Trent and everybody else. He begins solitary bike rides, and on one of these, he stumbles upon Water Wizz, an ageing, 1980s-era water park.
Presiding over Water Wizz is Owen (Sam Rockwell), a zany, joke-hurling slacker. Owen decides to take Duncan under his wing, and gives him a job at the water park. The shy teenager soon comes out of his shell, and under Owen's bizarre, and often very funny tutelage, starts to become a confident teenager.
Duncan becomes strong enough to stand up to Trent, and confident even enough to interact with neighbour Susanna (Anna Sophia Robb). Back at the beach house, Trent and Pam's relationship is souring – jeopardising the rest of the holiday and threatening to curtail Duncan's time with Owen at the water park.
The Way Way Back is directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who wrote the screenplay for The Descendants), and it contains some fine performances – Sam Rockwell's Owen is worth the price of admission alone. His performance is at times hilarious, and much like a hyperactive stand-up routine. Alison Janney as Betty, the loopy neighbour, also generates a few laughs. And Maya Rudolph, Toni Collette and Steve Carell also all do pretty well with what they're given.
The Way Way Back is harmless fun. It suffers from wanting to do too much: it wants to be a comedy, a drama, a slacker comedy, a teenage summer romance story, and a coming-of-age story, all at once. And it doesn't all fit – some themes get left behind along the way. But Rockwell's performance as Owen is brilliant, and alone is reason enough for a look.