July 03--There's nothing quite as tried and true in the American film canon as the summer coming-of-age story.
You've got your dweeby kid (usually male but not always) who is misunderstood by adults and most other kids alike. It looks like he or she will be spending a miserable summer at the beach or at camp or just at home, only to encounter a quirky adult who shows him or her the way to a changed life. There's often a little romance and, quite often, the tale is seen through the memories of an adult looking back at his or her childhood.
"The Way, Way Back" follows this formula down to every twist. But, happily, this film is in the hands of writers-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who pocketed an Oscar for their writing on 2011's "The Descendants." On a minuscule budget, by Hollywood standards at least, Faxon and Rash have produced a lovely, sweet, funny and delightfully acted movie that manages to be a crowd-pleaser without pandering.
When we first meet 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James from TV's "The Killing"), he is on his way to the Massachusetts shore with his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). He's clumsy, mumbles rather than talks, radiates loneliness and is clearly unhappy about being on this trip to the beach. It doesn't help that Trent is a sly but relentless bully, something Pam is oblivious to for most of the film.
It doesn't get any better at the beach house. Trent's teenage daughter Steph
(Zoe Levin) wants nothing to do with him. Next-door neighbor Betty (a wonderful Allison Janney) is a boozy divorcee who unleashes a hurricane of too much information every time she opens her mouth.
Pam is soon swept into a "spring break for adults" with Trent's beach friends (notably Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry) which consists largely of raunchy jokes, drinking and smoking pot while the kids are around.
Duncan is in for a long, awful summer -- until he stumbles across the Water Wizz water park, an artifact of the 1980s managed (sort of) by a slacker named Owen who takes it upon himself to rescue the kid from his misery.
In a tour-de-force performance that is both very funny and very real, Sam Rockwell turns Owen into the film's most vibrant character, a kind of warmhearted merry prankster who brings cool into Duncan's life. Soon, he has the kid working at the park, hanging out with the park's cool employees (including Maya Rudolph, Faxon and Rash), popping some dance moves and striking up a real friendship with Betty's smart and sexy daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb of the CW's "Carrie Diaries").
Meanwhile, things are not going well at the beach house with the adults and there is a darkness to the last part of the film, much of it driven by Pam's heartbreaking efforts to make her way in life as a single mom. There are hard lessons to be learned on the part of many of the characters and hearts will be broken.
While there is a crowd-pleasing bit of triumph for Duncan toward the end of the film, Faxon and Rash wisely avoid a predictable upbeat ending, leaving some things hanging and not wrapping things up with a pretty bow.
As was the case with "The Descendants," the writing by Faxon and Rash is smart and sure-footed. They make use of the coming-of-age formula but keep their take on it distinctly different from "Mud" and "Kings of Summer," which came out earlier this year, and 2009's "Adventureland" which had a rather similar setting.
Faxon and Rash also do well as first-time directors. Certainly, they draw a terrific performance from Rockwell and very good ones from Janney, Carell, Collette and Robb. The big misstep is a failure to give Duncan the kind of definition a central character should have, which too often results in James' Duncan being eclipsed by the supporting cast. They also misuse Rudolph who is not given anything remotely funny to do.
But those flaws can't stop "Way, Way Back" from being an invigorating breath of fresh air, a small, often enchanting film that may well find an audience amid all the summer blockbusters.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
'THE WAY, WAY BACK
Rating: PG-13 (for language, thematic elements and sexual content)
Cast: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell
Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
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