'The Way, Way Back’ is a witty and winning coming-of-age comedy

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Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are opposing father figures in ‘The Way, Way Back.’

by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

“The Way, Way Back” (2013) goes right to the front of the class as a charmer representing a sparkling alternative to the bombast that is the parade of comic book-inspired movies.

It’s an enjoyable comedy about a summer vacation that changes a teenager’s life.

Liam James plays Duncan, an awkward and sullen 14-year-old who, as the film begins, is being dragged along with his divorced mom, Pam, played by Toni Collette, and her hypocritical boyfriend, Trent, played by Steve Carell, to Trent’s East Coast beach house for the summer, along with Trent’s standoffish daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).

Duncan would much rather be spending the summer with his father on the West Coast, but his father has other plans, which doesn’t do much for Duncan’s self-esteem.

Trent, who appears on the way to becoming Duncan’s stepdad, hasn’t much time for Duncan either, so he insults and bullies him under the guise of bonding with him.

To get out from under, and finding a bike he can use, Duncan takes refuge at the local water park, Water Wizz, where he meets Owen, the slacker park manager played by Sam Rockwell, who takes him under his wing and offers him a job.

Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, and Maya Rudolph are also part of the strong ensemble, the first as a bubbly, alcoholic neighbor; the second as her fetching daughter, with Duncan as the fetchee; the third as a water park employee involved in a reluctant but flirtatious relationship with Owen.  And Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet play a couple of neighbors who are a neighboring couple as well.

The title refers to the far back seat that faces the rear in a family station wagon, which the film opens on and closes with.  It can also be taken as a metaphor for Duncan’s status in his current family of four.

Debuting writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who appear in the film in small roles as water park employees and who co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Descendants,” give the film a lived-in feel and the no-rush-no-rush rhythms of summer.

They also aim for and achieve a timelessness and “place-lessness,” lending their tale an unforced universality that goes a long way as they tiptoe artfully into dramedy territory.

Their work with the actors is exemplary, but it’s Rockwell who steals the show, cast against type – he so often plays off-putting characters – as the compassionate father figure.  Without pushing it, he puts his sharp comic timing and refreshing likability on terrific display as Duncan’s goofball mentor.

An endearing coming-of-age comedy, “The Way, Way Back” is way, way witty and winning.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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