By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
On a scale of one to 10, Duncan rates himself a six, after being prodded to pick a number by the bully who's driving. "A six?" Duncan's mother's boyfriend Trent says, bouncing disdain off the rearview mirror. "I think you're a three."
The insult smacks Duncan from behind, sitting in The Way, Way Back of a vintage station wagon in a reversed rear seat. Mom's asleep but she's too needy in love to protest. Trent's daughter Steph may be faking sleep, deflecting dad's scorn to Duncan.
It's the start of the summer that Duncan will never forget, for all the eloquent and awkward reasons The Way, Way Back shares with countless coming of age movies.
The movie is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — he lived through being rated a three — who won Oscars for scripting The Descendants, a gig resulting from this screenplay floating through Hollywood for years. The movies share ideas of domestic splits and disloyalty, selfish grownups and children caught in the middle. You might even compare Hawaii's beach appeal with coastal Massachusetts and the Water Wizz water park where Duncan takes first steps to the next, better stage of his life.
Duncan is portrayed with gawky grace by Liam James, smartly measuring his character's growth with gradual shifts in posture, eye contact and expression. The movie begins and ends with Duncan in that way, way back seat, but it's a different person at the fade out. An introvert eases a little more out there, nudged by his first experiments in independence and a small circle of irreverent new friends.
Water Wizz is Duncan's escape option, away from Trent's beach house and selfishness, played well and against type by Steve Carell. The water park's resident joker is Owen (Sam Rockwell), a role model in the younger Bill Murray mold. Owen sees something in this shy, mumbling kid taking his jokes literally, hires him part-time and becomes the positive male figure Duncan needs, joshing him toward maturity. Rockwell is hilarious with a hint of remorse; maybe he was a Duncan himself.
The Way, Way Back richly details both sides of Duncan's summer, each marked by adults in states of arrested development. Owen's is amusing, with pranks and banter inspiring a wacky sense of family among Water Wizz employees. Trent's is annoying, a me-first attitude enabled by Duncan's mother Pam (Toni Collette), and summer neighbors like a boozy busybody next door (Allison Janney) and a pushy party couple (Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry).
The jokes are often double-edged, the performances always spot-on. The Way, Way Back doesn't re-invent the teenage turning point genre, but Faxon and Rash offer a breezy new spin. You'll see more inventive movies this year but few more endearing.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.