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The Way Way Back (2013)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

The Way Way Back takes an exhausted subgenre, the Coming of Age dramedy, and supercharges it with a high-powered cast and a well-crafted screenplay.  This film may not say anything new, but at least it’s well-spoken.  As a result, The Way Way Back offers moments of sly humor and moving drama, with bits of sparkling greatness sprinkled into an otherwise pretty good film.   It may not revolutionize cinema, but watch enough hackneyed, gross-out teen flicks, and this will start to feel exemplary.

Like so many Bildungsromane,   Way Way Back takes place over one hot summer.  Duncan (Liam James), a quiet, nerdy boy in his early teens, heads to Cape Cod with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette).  Also on the trip are Trent (Steve Carrell), Pam’s douchey new boyfriend, and Steph (Zoe Levin), his snarky daughter.  (If Trent were made into an action figure, it would include cargo shorts and finger guns.)  He clearly views Duncan as a superfluous piece of luggage, and treats him accordingly.  During the (note-perfect) opening scene, as the makeshift family drives to the Cape, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself, on a scale of 1 to 10.  Duncan reluctantly lands on 6; Trent immediately downgrades him to a withering 3.  (In Trent’s eyes, any answer from Duncan would’ve been wrong.)

The remainder of the movie involves Duncan’s slow attempt to outshine both ratings.  Once the gang settles into Trent’s beach house, their neighbors descend:  Betty (Allison Janney) walks that tightrope between being the vivacious life of the party, and that loud, boozy nutball everyone avoids.  Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is her perpetually annoyed daughter.  Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) play one of those couples who always feel like they’re one misplaced sentence away from a screaming match.  Amongst this boisterous crowd, Duncan couldn’t be more of a wallflower.

Unsurprisingly, he sneaks out at the first opportunity.  After a few miles on a commandeered girl’s bike, Duncan ends up at The Water Wizz, a local splash park.  Duncan quickly pops up on the radar of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s man-child manager.  Owen is the opposite of Trent:  He immediately spots something special and fragile within the boy.  Owen offers Duncan a job as a gofer, thus giving him an escape and a purpose for the entire summer.

Anybody who’s seen enough of these movie can guess where the story has to go from here:  Duncan will slowly build his confidence, and learns about life and love along the way.  And while The Way Way Back will offer few surprises, it does find success by the clever, meticulous way it handles the material.  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who co-write and direct) know when to hit the big dramatic beats, and when to let the story dissolve into moments of silliness.  (The latter often springs from Rockwell, who slips into the role of freewheeling goofball so comfortably, it’s hard to believe this role wasn’t built for him.)

In fact, Rockwell is–like always–a threat to walk off with the entire movie.  Thankfully, this all-star cast just won’t let him.  James nails the painful awkwardness of being fourteen and dorky, while also maintaining enough likability to keep his character compelling.  Likewise, few players embody aching vulnerability like Collette, making us root hard for Pam to pull away from jerkwad Trent.  On that subject, Carrell puts on a master class in subtle villainy.  His middle-aged frat boy takes Michael Scott and strips away the irresistible ditziness and flickers of humanity, thus leaving only the oblivious arrogance behind.  (We hate Trent, because most of us know somebody just like him.)  Janney has a blast playing Betty, who always seems ready to slap somebody on the ass.  Only Maya Rudolph gets wasted, as Owen’s hen-pecking love interest.

Stitch all that together, and you’ll get an above-average movie.  As with the best coming of age flicks, there’s something for everybody.  Kids can find comfort that they’re not alone during this clunkiest phase of life.  (Seriously, did anybody actually enjoy their junior high years???) Adults can cringe-laugh because they’ve been there.  Everybody can find at least one character to cheer for.  If you missed The Way Way Back the first time around, definitely give it a look on streaming.

104 min.  PG-13.  Paramount Plus.

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