***1/2 (out of 4)
If possible, I would blend “The Way, Way Back” with ice and syrup and drink it all summer. I’d wear it as sunscreen or I’d put it in my pocket, careful that it didn’t get wet at the pool or beach.
That’s how much I enjoyed the bittersweet summer memories of this dramedy written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also co-star as water park employees. Unlike the pair’s Oscar-winning script with Alexander Payne for “The Descendants,” “Back” effortlessly blends the good with the bad of family and friends without using laughs to shy away from the hard stuff. A few moments in the film devastate, and many of them soar.
Shy 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James of “The Killing”) would much rather be with his dad in California than spending the summer in a northeastern beach town with his mom (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Collette’s “Little Miss Sunshine” co-star Steve Carell), whose emotional abuse of Duncan is as casual as it is damaging. When Trent says, “One day we could become a family,” he wants Duncan to take it as a threat, not an olive branch or gesture of hope. Without the confidence to make a move on the girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb of “The Carrie Diaries”), Duncan escapes to the water park, which serves the opposite purpose of the last-chance wasteland of “Adventureland.” There, an employee (Sam Rockwell in a triumphant comic performance) takes Duncan under his wing while taking absolutely nothing else seriously.
The cast couldn’t fit together any more snugly. Carell’s an excellent, understated jackass, while Allison Janney, as Trent’s boozing sister and Susanna’s (Robb) mom, epitomizes the flailing desperation that Rash and Faxon see in many of their adult characters. James was a great choice for Duncan—he’s the wallflower who just needs a push, the classic coming-of-age hero who will have his greatest experiences long after the movie ends but keep the events shown dear to his heart all the same.
The characterizations and discoveries of “Back” never feel new, yet there’s a timelessness to each misstep, humiliation and mini-triumph. It’s the awkwardness of youth and the desired stability of adulthood, presented as if that journey puts a big, fun smile on your face.
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