'Way, Way Back' is way, way honest and moving
It's not always pleasant to be reminded of your teen years, that ungraceful, awkward era that made so many of us feel like a freak, an alien.
That's exactly what happens when you watch the coming-of-age dramedy The Way, Way Back.
A sly, richly modulated, emotionally engaging, and brutally honest film, it stars the remarkable Canadian child actor Liam James as Duncan, a painfully shy, alienated 14-year-old who has the summer vacation from Hades.
It's been a year since Duncan's father divorced his mom and moved across the continent to start a new family. Duncan, who has spent the interim comforting his mom, Pam (a charming, understated Toni Collette), is at loose ends when she falls for a car salesman named Trent.
An obnoxious, domineering, aggressively outgoing if charming single dad played to perfection by Steve Carell, Trent is taking Pam, Duncan, and his equally narcissistic daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) to his beach house for the summer.
The Way, Way Back, which is cowritten and codirected with confidence and grace by Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, plunges us headlong into Duncan's unquiet mind in the opening scene.
The boy is sitting in the way, way back - the small seat way at the back of a 1980s station wagon - on his way to the beach when Trent asks him to rate himself as a person from 1 to 10.
"A 6," the kid says apprehensively.
"I think you're a 3," Trent tells him with a certain sadistic glee. His motives aren't entirely cruel: Trent says he's trying to teach Duncan an important lesson - that he'll always feel like a loser until he makes an effort to go out there and make friends, have adventures, and grow up.
But it makes Duncan all the more alienated. James so thoroughly embodies Duncan's self-doubt, his awkward gait, and his jealousy, it's sometimes hard to watch him on-screen. Your heart cries out to him, while at the same time you feel angry that he's so helpless and passive.
Things begin to change when Duncan gets a job at a local water park and befriends the manager Owen. Played with wild 'n' crazy glee by Sam Rockwell and clearly modeled on Bill Murray in Meatballs, Owen is a perpetual teen, a manchild who seems immune to pain, disappointment, heartache.
Rockwell sometimes overdoes the Murray schtick, but he's a terrific addition to a great cast, which also includes Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet.
Wistful, though never saccharine or schmaltzy, The Way, Way Back has a certain John Hughes magic, but with a definite 21st-century edge.
The Way, Way Back *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. With Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes, mild sexuality, smoking)
Playing at: Ritz Five and Rave at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.