'The Way, Way Back': Road tale improves when it drifts from plot ★★ 1/2

Sam Rockwell: a lot of fun. He's a rarity in American movies, a serious and careful actor — the essence of utility, able to support and enliven all sorts of material — who is comfortable just kicking back and enjoying himself if the role calls for it.

In "The Way, Way Back" Rockwell, always with a spring in his step, plays Owen, the good-time manager of a Massachusetts tourist town water park. He befriends the 14-year-old loner at the center of the story, a stoop-shouldered shrug in motion played by Liam James, and gives him a job at the Water Wizz, a social magnet for misfits and eccentrics of all stripes.

The film's not as good as its cast, but "The Way, Way Back" has its moments. It's the debut feature from writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who shared an adapted screenplay Oscar with Alexander Payne for "The Descendants." Rash is a regular on the NBC sitcom "Community"; Faxon, too, has done a lot of series TV and improv-based comedy (they were colleagues at the Groundlings theater company in Los Angeles and take on small roles here).

The strengths and weaknesses of the picture reveal all in the first scene. Duncan (James) sits facing us, in the "way, way back" third seat of his mother's boyfriend's station wagon. Mom, named Pam, is Toni Collette; boyfriend Trent, alongside her in the front seat, is her "Little Miss Sunshine" cohort, Steve Carell.

In the first exchange, Trent, a steely sort, asks Duncan to rate himself from 1 to 10. Uh, a 6? he replies. No, I'd say you're a 3, the alleged adult says. It's well-played, this scene, though it paints Carell's character as such a jerk from the outset that we can't help judging Collette's character as a dupe. And the movie hasn't even started, really.

As in "Little Miss Sunshine," the motif here is the messed-up-family road trip. Trent has a teenage daughter (Zoe Levin), and all four are sharing Trent's beach house for a few weeks. Boozy, blowsy neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) locks horns with her tetchy teenage daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). In Duncan's eyes this girl next door represents the unattainable: someone to practice, painfully at first, talking to girls with, and maybe something else.

Improbably, Duncan takes on a full-time summer gig at the water park, without his mother realizing where he goes all day. Meantime, Trent seems weirdly close to the girlfriend (Amanda Peet) of his pal (Rob Corddry) over group dinners near the beach. Relationships, honest ones, do not come easily in "The Way, Way Back."

It sounds counterintuitive, but when Rash and Faxon allow their scenes to meander off the major plot points, this starts feeling and acting like a really good coming-of-age picture. It's the big, awkwardly written confrontations that need work. Through it all, Rockwell buoys the material. Owen must've been a gas to play. Duncan's story feels only half-finished: The far superior "Adventureland" mined similar territory among an older group of teens. But the half that's there may be enough for audiences interested in a respite from yet another superhero movie.

mjphillips@tribune.com

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material)

Running time: 1:43

Opens: Friday

CHICAGO

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