The Reel Breakdown

Critic's Pick: 'The Way, Way Back'

The Reel Breakdown

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Liam James in a scene from "The Way Way Back."

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If you're first act was writing the Oscar winning screenplay for "The Descendants," looking for an encore can be tough. But writing partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash leveraged that win and made the leap to directing their own small-budget, bighearted coming of age comedy. "The Way, Way Back" - based on their original screenplay, tells the funny-sad story of Duncan (Liam James), a gangly son of divorce travels with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), for a summer visit to the sea-side cottage of her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell).

When Duncan isn’t skulking, or making fumbling attempts to flirt with the curvy girl-next-door (AnnaSophia Raab), the fourteen-year old commandeers a girlie stingray bike and discovers a dilapidated water park. At the Water Wizz, Duncan lands a job and finds a measure of independence. He also encounters a guru-like screw-up of a father figure in the deadpan park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell).

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Part "Little Miss Sunshine," part ""The Ice Storm," "The Way, Way Back" (a reference to Duncan’s position at the bottom of the totem pole at the very back of the family station wagon) fits neatly into the summer coming of age category. If you liked last year’s twee hipster "Moonrise Kingdom," the classic "Summer of '42," or the nostalgic "Super 8," this comedy fits the genre neatly and provides an antidote to the screaming mega-blockbusters to be found in the bigger theaters at the multiplex.

In other words, the dialog matters.

As Duncan, James lays on the pout a bit thick, but Rockwell steals every scene he’s in. He has a stand-up comedian’s delivery, nails the best lines from screenwriters Faxon and Rash (who also play water park characters) and earns a tart love interest in Maya Rudolph’s together park manager.

Carrell has the bigger challenge. Faxon-Rash script Trent as an unadulterated tool – the guy Duncan’s mom should never marry. In the first scene driving to the beach, Trent defines himself by cruelly telling Duncan that, on a scale of one to ten, the teen’s a three.

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Because of the negative way in which Trent’s drawn, he’s never more than an instrument for pushing the plot toward its redemptive end. He’s seen too much through Duncan’s eyes, and that doesn’t give Carrell’s subtle comic of manners much space to breathe warmth into a character that desperately needs it.

In part because of the imbalance between Rockwell and Carrell, the wacky water park scenes trump the dysfunctional divorcee-by-the-beach drama. Like Duncan, the audience yearns to escape to the Water Wizz. That funky setting makes for the best scenes, although nothing compares with the "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" water park episode where Mom stripped to her bathing costume and, horror of horrors, revealed her mangled 'fork-lift toe.' Bringing that to film would demand John Waters and his late muse Divine. If only!

Bottom Line: A Darkly Funny Coming-of-Ager

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