WayWayBackcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes

2013, 103 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray + UV copy
Bonus features: C-

There are some films that children just aren’t as willing to watch with adults—like foreign movies with subtitles, silent movies (more subtitles), or indie pics, with their watch-grass-grow pacing.

But if you are looking for a great “starter indie” for the family—an adult movie that the kids can see, if you don’t mind adult drinking and pot smoking—you might consider The Way Way Back. It’s from the same studio that gave us Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, but is even more kid-friendly than those two films. It’s that rare coming-of-age film that isn’t all about having sex for the first time.

The title is inspired by the rear-facing “way way back” seat in those old station wagons that were big as boats, and while there’s teens and adults and bad behavior, the twist is that the adults behave badly and the kids—at least the main characters—seem more mature.  

Liam James stars as Duncan, an awkward, brooding 14 year old whose teen years are being made even more of a torment by the man his mother (Toni Collette) is dating. In an opening sequence, as the blended family (him, her, his daughter, her son) drives in a big boat of a station wagon to the Cape Cod vacation home the man inherited from his parents, the boy is shown sullenly riding in the “way way back”—a seat that faces the car’s back window. Trent (Steve Carell) prods him to give an honest appraisal of himself:

“On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?”
“A 6.”
“I think you’re a 3.”

The man’s daughter obviously agrees, because when they land she refuses to show him any kindness. Forced to take him to the beach, she marginalizes him and makes him walk 10 paces behind her and sit far away from her and her friends. That sets the tone for his level of interaction with this group and provides a pretty clear picture of why he’d want to get away—even if it means pedaling off on an old pink girl’s bicycle with a basket and streamers hanging from the angel bars.

WayWayBackscreenIn town he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), who’s either a man who refuses to grow up or a free spirit, depending upon your point of view—the woman he’s been seeing (Maya Rudolph), or young Duncan, who so desperately needs an adult to show him the way:

“Serious, when’s the last time you bought jeans?”
“My mom buys my jeans.”
“Good. Always take things literally. How’s that working out for you?”

Owen appears to have inherited a water park because he lives above it and despite a lack of responsibility seems never in danger of losing his job—and he has the authority to hire Duncan. The Way Way Back bounces amiably back and forth between these two worlds that Duncan inhabits during a summer in which Owen helps him come out of the shell that Trent keeps forcing him back into.

Also thrown into the mix is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of the divorced couple who own the summer home next door. She’s seen it all, and explains the adults’ erratic behavior to him in one sweet sentence: “It’s like spring break for adults.” She should know. Her mother (Allison Janney) has been on perpetual spring break since her father left.

If Janney doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I’ll be surprised. She plays an alcoholic good-time Betty in a way that we haven’t really seen in a long time:  as lovable, energetic, but (of course) deeply troubled people whose drinking is the band-aid that keeps all of the bad things from spilling out. Janney is the most believable tipsy woman I’ve seen in the movies, but she stops way short of being an obnoxious drunk. That’s a tough line to walk (yes, pun intended), but she pulls it off. You feel sympathetic towards her, and the more mature kids help us get to that generous place. People are flawed, divorce is hard on everyone, but it takes a friend or two (of any age or gender) to see you through.

The Way Way Back has dramatic moments but it’s mostly a comedy—another selling point for families looking to watch with their older children. It’s funny, fast-paced, energetic and indie-quirky—in other words, the perfect starter indie flick.