Coming-of-age stories are a time-honored tradition of film and literature, too numerous to possibly count but innately identifiable for adult viewers who have ever gone through puberty (read: all of them). Some are better than others, of course, more accurate and emotionally honest, but whenever one of them works, it can make for a particularly pleasurable experience. The directorial debut of screenwriting partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (2011's "The Descendants
"), "The Way Way Back" is one such success, tough and tinged with the kind of nostalgia that's both bitter and sweet. Very funny at times, sometimes painfully so, Faxon and Rash share an understanding of what it's like at that especially awkward age of 14, during a time when one doesn't feel like there's a place in the world for them to fit in. There isn't much here that hasn't been covered in other past movies of this ilk, but it doesn't matter; the path toward growing up is a universal process, filled with as many individual stories as there have been adolescents.
Upstate New York transplant Duncan (Liam James) is being dragged along to the Massachusetts coast for a summer at the beach with his divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent's 16-year-old daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). He expects to be miserable for three monthsit's not a promising sign when, on the drive up as Pam naps, Trent cruelly labels Duncan a '3' on a scale of 1 to 10but even as he dreads every moment of watching his mom repeat the same relationship mistakes she's already made once before, he finds an unexpected escape at the local Water Wizz Water Park. It is here that he befriends the sharp-witted Owen (Sam Rockwell) and the rest of the park's ragtag team of employees, all of them welcoming him aboard as he takes on his first real job. Accepted in a way that he hasn't before, it is his gradual rise in confidence that helps him to finally stand up to Trent and befriend pretty, slightly older girl next door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
A kindred cousin to 2009's amusement park-set "Adventureland
," "The Way Way Back" features a younger, but equally inexperienced, protagonist while following him during a summer of eye-opening internal growth. As 14-year-old Duncan, Liam James (2009's "2012
") is the film's unassuming centerpiece, capturing with an almost documentary-level lack of affectedness a teenage portrait of introverted, monotone-voiced gawkiness. Slowly but surely, he opens up as the summer plays out and he finds a sort of fleeting surrogate family in Water Wizz workers Owen, Owen's boss/on-again, off-again girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), and the dedicated, deadpan Lewis (Jim Rash). Meanwhile, Susanna, having grown tired of hanging with Steph and her other flighty, entitled gal pals, finds herself endeared by Duncan and curious where he rides off on his bike every day. A friendship, and potentially more, follows, but their relationship is one that will likely end with the season as Duncan heads home. Susanna is his first crush and possibly first love as a developing teenage boy, and there's a touching undercurrent to the realization that it's bound to be fleeting, over as quickly as it starts.
Surrounding Liam James' Duncan is a sterling supporting cast, not a weak spot among them. Sam Rockwell (2012's "Seven Psychopaths
") is terrific as Owen, making the most of a menial profession he's long gotten too old for and seeing in Duncan a kid who just needs a little nudge and acknowledgment to come into his own. As his hot-and-cold girlfriend, manager Caitlyn, Maya Rudolph (2012's "Friends with Kids
") is her usual invaluable presence, ready for a commitment but not entirely convinced Owen is ready to give her what she wants from a partner. Toni Collette (2012's "Hitchcock
") is touching as Duncan's mom, Pam, the kind of woman who never thinks she's good enough to deserve better and afraid to take a stand for herself. Duncan realizes that new guy Trent is a passive-aggressive weaseland unfaithful, to bootand Steve Carrell (2013's "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
") is at his absolute smarmy best playing the kind of man who hurts people without any concern for their feelings or what he's done. Playing night-and-day daughter and mother neighbors Susanna and Betty, AnnaSophia Robb (2011's "Soul Surfer
") is radiant as Duncan's object of affection, herself not as experienced as she might seem, while Allison Janney (2012's "Liberal Arts
") is hilarious in the kind of part she plays best: that of a boozy, wisecracking extrovert struggling to raise her kids in between her next cocktail.
"The Way Way Back" (yes, there should be a comma after the first "Way," but it's missing from the opening titles) deserves to become a go-to summer movie. No, it's not a special effects-laden blockbuster, but its beach-and-waterpark-and-first-love feel reverberates with a warm-weathered seasonal glow matched by writer-directors Nat Faxon's and Jim Rash's sympathetic compassion for what it is like to try to find one's way while still being stuck in between the tricky ages of a child and an adult. By the end, not only is Duncan well on his way to turning a new page, but so is Pam, gaining the backbone she should have had all along. It might sound trite to suggest it's a summer they won't soon forget, but that's exactly what it is.