Oh, sure, there’s not much about “The Way Way Back” that’s new or unique. It’s a boy-oriented coming-of-age story in a year that’s already seen some great ones (“Mud,” “The Kings of Summer”), and it doesn’t tread new ground or make new observations about the painful, hilarious process of growing up. But that Fourth of July fireworks show probably looked a lot like previous fireworks shows, and you still enjoyed it, didn’t you?
July 4 figures into the story in “The Way Way Back,” as does the main character’s quest for independence. That would be Duncan (Liam James), age 14, which can be a miserable time anyway. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is dating a man named Trent (Steve Carell) who doesn’t relate well to Duncan and is only superficially interested in trying. (He always calls him “bud,” in the manner of modern apathetic soon-to-be stepfathers.) Joined by Trent’s teenage daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), who has even less patience for a dork like Duncan, they’re all spending the summer at Trent’s beach house in a New England seaside town.
Trent and Steph are regulars here, so they have local friends: Betty (Allison Janney), the boozy busybody next door, and her teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb); and a lively married couple, Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). Pam is welcomed by them all, and the grown-ups have giggly, wine- and weed-fueled late nights on the beaches. But Duncan doesn’t have anyone to play with.
He finds his salvation in a water park across town, particularly in its assistant manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), a glib jokester with a constant patter who takes a shine to this awkward, quiet kid, offers him a job, and takes him under his wing. The water park’s guests love Owen — he’s the “cool” grown-up, the one who lets them horse around — and Owen relates to them because he shares their level of maturity. He helps Duncan gain confidence in himself by making him feel like he belongs with him and the other carefree employees (including two played by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the Oscar-winning duo who wrote “The Descendants” and wrote and directed this film). His mother and Trent aren’t paying a lot of attention anyway, so Duncan just doesn’t tell them where he spends his days.
The film, warm and sunshiny, is pleased to examine the awkward limbo status between childhood and young adulthood, doing so with tart humor and believable scenarios that remind us of our own adolescent follies without poking TOO painfully at them. It also underscores the opposite directions that grown-ups and kids sometimes need to go. Susanna astutely describes the summer-home community as “spring break for adults”; at the water park, Owen’s boss and ex-girlfriend, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) — the one who has to put up with him and do all the real work — asks a highly relevant question with regard to his constant clowning: “Aren’t you sick of yourself?” Duncan’s mom and his mentor both need to grow up and be a little more responsible, while Duncan needs to relax and enjoy life more.
Sixteen-year-old Liam James (from TV’s “The Killing”) does well in his first major film role, portraying the character’s moody self-consciousness with sympathy-inducing accuracy; Steve Carell plays a heel better than we might have expected; Toni Collette gives life to her performance as a distracted but loving mother; and Allison Janney steals every scene she’s in with her barbed tongue, free-flowing gossip, and boisterous personality. But it’s Sam Rockwell you’ll be talking about afterward. Aside from being very funny as Owen, he’s also sincere: underneath the joking, he cares about people. Owen could have been nothing more than a motormouthed sidekick, but Rockwell gives him heart.
The film gets a little heavy-handed in the way it stacks the deck against Trent, and perhaps too tidy in its delivery of the plot points and revelations that move the story forward. It’s also somewhat implausible that a 14-year-old could get a legitimate job (with a paycheck and everything) without his mother’s permission. But why quibble? Take off your shoes, have some laughs, enjoy the summer.
B (1 hr., 43 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.