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The Way, Way Back

A movie for that awkward, I’d-rather-not kid but also something for that other kid too

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The Way, Way Back

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Opens July 12 at the Landmark

For the popular kids, summertime floats along like a dream—it’s like they’re Lindsay Lohan’s character in The Parent Trap, blissfully frolicking around a forested camp, pranking their dad’s bitchy girlfriend, having perfect hair all the time. But summer vacation can force other preadolescents into a state of abject misery: What if you hate camp? What if you have ethical qualms with luring bears to your dad’s girlfriend’s tent? What if your hair frizzes?

The Way, Way Back not only offers a movie for that awkward, I’d-rather-not kid but also something for that kid to do (watch a movie) while killing time before they reach adulthood and discover they were ahead of the curve anyway.

Gloomy, diffident 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged by his shrinking-violet-type mother, Pam (Toni Collette), on his “new family’s” vacation—Pam’s sneering boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell showing some range as a Grade A douchebag), and Trent’s beer-guzzling teenage daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). At Trent’s New England beach house, Duncan sulks and skulks as Pam, a working-class caterer, tries to seem at ease with Trent’s moneyed friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), who enjoy boozing, sailing, and, in Joan’s case, hooking up with Trent. (It seems that The Way, Way Back’s writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash sourced their character names from The Official Preppy Handbook.) The brightest spot in the snooty beach town is kooky divorcée Betty (Allison Janney), who clearly lacks a mental speed bump—she chides her young son for having a lazy eye—but is otherwise Pam’s only adult ally in the movie.

For Duncan, however, recourse comes when he happens upon a waterpark further inland, where an insouciant, deceptively wise manchild of a manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), takes him under the wing and gives him a job at the park. Duncan befriends other employees—the cast of co-workers there fills out a number of stereotypes—and his confidence while away from Trent’s house blooms. And that’s good, because the situation worsens at home and Duncan must provide the counterbalance to his mother’s eagerness to please.

The Way, Way Back relies on one-dimensional characters and cliches in its plot, but as kids’ movies go, it’s not nearly as fluffy as they come, and its senior actors (Carell, Rockwell, Collette, Janney) deliver performances that give it some punch here and there. Liam James’ Duncan overacts in a way that can be aggravating at moments, but then again, isn’t that what most 14-year-olds do anyway?

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