In 2013’s “The Way Way Back,” a family goes on a vacation to a seaside resort, but not everyone in the clan is happy about it. The morose teenager Duncan, played by Liam James, does not like his pushy stepfather and cannot understand his mother’s attraction to him. The stepfather, Trent, played by Steve Carrell, wants to use the holiday to assert his control over Duncan, but getting him to conform proves difficult. When the movie opens, Trent tells Duncan that he’s only a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, so the audience doesn’t expect much to go right between them.
Duncan not only dislikes Trent, but he also can’t stand his stepsister, Duncan’s vacuous daughter Steph. He’s having trouble adjusting to anything and nothing his mother can do seems to help. Duncan’s mother, Pam, played by Toni Collette, strives for peace and refrains from defending Duncan to Trent in any way. This serves as an explanation for why Duncan can secretly wander off everyday to work at a water park. The film’s mentoring male figure, Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, attempts to change Duncan in a more loving and humorous way, providing a way to keep this potentially depressing situation several degrees lighter. Owen manages a water park called “Water Wizz,” and offers Duncan a job for the summer.
Allison Janney plays a partying neighbor named Beth, who’s the mother of a lovely daughter about Duncan’s age named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). She’s sweet and caring, allowing Duncan to open up to her about his feelings regarding the adults. Susanna seems unaffected by her immature mother, and accepts Duncan even though his own stepsister tries to ostracize him. A romance could develop, but Susanna is mostly a sincere friend.
Duncan changes over the course of the movie as a result of working at the water park. He learns to enjoy his ritual chores and the freedom he gets from spending so many hours away from Trent and Pam’s beach house. Owen constantly works on getting Duncan to open up, and it’s entertaining to watch him crack dry jokes and receive playful needling from another co-worker, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph). The movie also explores her loyalty to Owen and her expectation that somehow Owen will show her sincere romantic interest.
The experience of working at Water Wizz proves so beneficial and enjoyable to Duncan that it appears he might want to return the next summer. Of course, Trent owns the beach house, so going back would require a thaw in their frigid relationship. But since Owen mainly succeeds in getting Duncan to relax, the payoff in familial harmony may come later. What’s more likely is that Duncan determinately pursues things that interest him, guaranteeing that he raises his number on a scale of 1 to 10.