Susan Granger's review of 'The Way Way Back'
Along with summer sunshine inevitably comes coming-of-age comedic dramas -- and this is better than most. The family-friendly story revolves around disgruntled 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is forced to spend the summer at a Cape Cod beach house with his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), her smarmy boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent's mean, snarky daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) from a previous marriage.
As Duncan is riding in the way, way back, rear-facing seat of their old 1970s station wagon, domineering Trent immediately ignites his ire by demanding that the reclusive teenager to rank himself on a scale of one to 10. When Duncan mumbles "Six," Trent indicates that's about double his own evaluation. Not a great start for a relationship with a perhaps-about-to-be stepdad.
Seeking refuge from the seemingly continual partying of Pam, Trent and their boozy, annoying friends (Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry), Duncan sneaks off on a borrowed girl's bike to spend time at Water Wizz, a nearby amusement park run by explosive, weirdly gregarious Owen (Sam Rockwell), who not only hires him for the summer but also becomes the mentor/father figure that humorless Duncan so desperately needs. Along with his co-workers Catlin (Maya Rudolph), Roddy (Nat Faxon) and Lewis (Jim Rash), Duncan -- more significantly -- makes friends with an amiable neighbor, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
The Oscar-winning "The Descendants" screenwriting team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash makes their directing debut, developing rich, recognizable characters and working wonders with a familiar, formulaic script that evokes memories of Gregg Mottola's similarly autobiographical "Adventureland" (2009), starring Jesse Eisenberg. Despite the drawing power of "Little Miss Sunshine" alums Steve Carell and Toni Collette, it's Rockwell who delivers the most delightful and memorable performance, ably supported by the adolescent cast.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Way Way Back" is an uplifting, endearing 8. It's a bittersweet, heartwarming de-light.