By Mark Saldana 

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

After reading a synopsis of this film or watching a trailer, one might question the need for another coming-of-age summer vacation movie. Especially after watching and enjoying The Kings of Summer quite recently, not to mention years of countless other films I watched in my youth, I definitely had this question in mind going into this movie.  Still, the more hopeful, less cynical part of me anticipated great performances from a cast of actors known for superb work. Thankfully the entire cast delivers outstandingly. In addition, writing/directing duo, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash take what could have been stale material for a movie and reinvigorate it with sharply written humor and a whole lot of heart.

 The Way Way Back follows the summer vacation of 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is a shy and not so confident kid who is forced to spend his time off with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Much to Duncan’s chagrin, the family travels to Trent’s childhood stomping grounds where the adults easily mingle together and the precocious Steph can hang out with some of the other teens. Not really fitting in anywhere, Duncan meets and befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), a middle-aged slacker type who works at the local water park. With Duncan pretty much spending his days hanging out at the park, Owen gets him hired and the two form a close bond. While working at the park with Owen and some of the other colorful employees, Duncan gains more confidence and comes out of his protective shell giving him the inner strength to face the familial trouble brewing at home.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash not only wrote and directed this lovely gem of a film, but also star in some highly amusing supporting roles as two of the employees of the Water Wizz water park.  These talented gentlemen take what could have been a tired rehash of a story, inject their witty and inventive brand of humor and combine it with the necessary real world gravity and drama.  Anyone who grew up as a child of divorce, or has ever felt like an outcast during their teens will relate to content and characters. Duncan is perfectly realized and portrayed as a teen who not only must cope with his own insecurities resulting from his parents’ divorce, but also the pain in seeing his timid mother in another troubled relationship with a domineering and insensitive boyfriend.  Faxon and Rash, who wrote the screenplay for Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, not only prove they can write well, but also show that they have the ability to direct also.

I also found it rather pleasing to see Faxon and Rash in the film as wacky and fun employees of the Water Wizz.  Faxon portrays Roddy, another middle-aged slacker type who operates one the popular waterslides in the park. Rash stars as Lewis, a grumpy, deadpan employee who actually manages to steal a few scenes in the movie. In an uncharacteristically hateful role, Steve Carell perfectly nails the often mean and bullying boyfriend Trent. I’m not used to seeing him as such an unlikable character, but because he performs so well, it came as a welcome departure. I also enjoyed Toni Collette as the mousy and vulnerable Pam.

The movie also features pleasing acting by Anna Sophia Robb who plays Duncan’s friend Susanna, Maya Rudolph who stars as Caitlin, head employee of the Water Wizz, and an often hilarious turn by River Alexander who appears as Susanna’s little brother Peter. Most of the laughs and the most hilarious lines are delivered by Allison Janney who stars as Susanna and Peter’s wild mother Betty, and Sam Rockwell who absolutely owns his role as Owen.  Rockwell plays such a personable and lovable character in Owen. Despite his slacker tendencies, I almost wanted Pam to dump Trent on his ass and pursue a relationship with him, just for the sake of Duncan. Last, but not least, Liam James delivers an amazing performance as the shy outcast Duncan. I certainly hope his work here is recognized and that he gets the opportunity to work in other movies.

So for those still questioning whether or not another coming-of-age story is worth one’s time or money, I’m not sure what more I can add to offer this great film more praise. Yes, this movie does have some of the typical characters and elements that most movies of this kind have, but I feel that the writing which delivers on both comedic and dramatic levels, and the applause-worthy performances of the cast make this movie worth the trip to the cinema.  It may not be the usual bombastic summer fare, but it makes for a cozy and congenial alternative.

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