"The Way Way Back" isn't a horrible movie. It isn't nearly a classic, either. What puts it firmly in the middle ground is how the film teases with what looks to be an interesting premise, but then can't decide what it wants to be.
For a basic plot summary, this movie tells the story of Duncan (Liam James), who is spending the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend (Steve Carell). While his mother can't see that her new beau may not be right for her, Duncan picks up on it right away, and as a result wants to spend as little time as possible "hanging around". As such, his summer is spent working under the mentorship of Owen (Sam Rockwell) at the local waterpark, as well as puzzling over the mysterious and beautiful neighbor girl Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
As I said in the opening, I think that the main problem with "The Way Way Back" is that directors Nat Faxon & Jim Rash just can't decide what they want this movie to feel like. On one hand, it tries to be a "teen screwball coming-of-age" movie (especially with all the waterpark stuff), but that is the weakest material. On the other hand, it could have been more of a serious drama, but that tone isn't present whatsoever (until perhaps the very end, when it clearly becomes obvious that it was not earned by any meaningful character development). Instead, "Way Way Back" just sort of lands in the middle.
For this movie to have really shined, I think a couple of things would have had to happen (besides the obvious settling on a tone):
-We would need more development within Duncan's new family, which the "screwball" sections of the film really crowd out. Largely, the movie relies on stereotypes or well-worn character paths (overbearing stepfather, Mother too swept away to notice, etc.) to build drama, so it is no wonder that it falls a bit flat in the end.
-Robb's character is severely underutilized. She spends nearly the entire movie in various bikinis (so it is pretty obvious what her purpose was), but once again her character's presence doesn't add up to much in the end. When she gives Duncan a kiss, it doesn't feel "earned" at all based on what we've seen previously (all awkward conversations and scenarios). Susanna could have been a "sexual awakening" character for Duncan, or she could of been a confident of sorts (her family is going through divorce issues as well). I never really felt the character lived up to either billing.
So, while "The Way Way Back" is a perfectly acceptable fun summer movie, I can't give it any higher than middle-of-the-road marks because of the odd tone and waffling genres. To me, it needed to "pick a lane" (coming-of-age drama or screwball teen goof-off) and stay within it, as the melding of the two yielded rather odd results.