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"THE WAY, WAY BACK"
(2013) (Liam James, Steve Carell) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A teenager, still reeling from the divorce of his parents and bullied by his mom's new boyfriend, takes a job at a water theme park for the summer.
PLOT:
Duncan (LIAM JAMES) has seen his world turned upside-down the past couple of years. His parents have divorced, and his mom, Pam (TONI COLLETTE), has moved on with a new man, Trent (STEVE CARELL). Things are so serious between the two that they have decided to spend the summer at Trent's beach house along with Trent's daughter, Steph (ZOE LEVIN), from a previous marriage. The problem is Trent is a bully, who browbeats Duncan at every turn and insists that everything be done the "right" way - i.e. his way.

Once arrived at the quaint, little beach town, they are greeted by a group of vacationers who are longtime friends of Trent's. There is the boozy, outgoing divorcee Betty (ALLISON JANNEY); her pretty teenage daughter, Susanna (ANNASOPHIA ROBB); and her weird son, Peter (RIVER ALEXANDER). There is also the fun couple Kip (ROB CORDDRY) and Joan (AMANDA PEET), who Trent had carried on a secret affair with the previous summer.

One day, Duncan decides to venture off and see what the town has to offer. He finds a local, rundown water theme park run by the eccentric Owen (SAM ROCKWELL), who gives him a job. On Owen's staff are Caitlyn, who likes Owen but can't put up with his immaturity; the perpetually miserable Lewis (JIM RASH); and Roddy (NAT FAXON), Owen's enabling park buddy. They all become attached to Duncan over the course of the summer and try and help him come out of his shell.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, there was a local water/amusement park called Wild World that used to come across to the local high schools each March or April and recruit kids to work the rides, concessions, and shows each summer. I never applied, but a number of my friends did. And it was quite the experience for them. The rest of us would sort of "lose" those friends for the hot months. They got a new circle of friends, a new family, a new community at Wild World.

When we would reconvene back at school in September, there were stories of wild after-hours parties at the park. More importantly, there were the milestones. For many, it was their first job, their first paycheck, their first run-ins with demanding bosses. But there were the more personal milestones. Some friends had their first kiss during those summers working the park. Others had their first sip of beer. Still others fell in love for the first time. Regardless, they all came back the following fall changed - some a little, some a lot.

"The Way, Way Back" sort of nails that whole time in a young person's life when everything is so big, so dire, so emotional. And it's wise to how a summer job at such an amusement park can seem like an oasis, a safe haven. We meet Duncan (Liam James), a shy and introverted teenage boy who has been dragged to a sleepy East Coast beach town to spend the summer with his divorced mom, Pam (Toni Collette); her overbearing perfectionist boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell); and his snobby, teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan is still reeling from the divorce of his parents a couple of years earlier. Even worse, he is constantly ordered around, criticized, and generally brow-beaten by Trent who demands things be done his way at all times.

One day, he decides he's had enough and goes for a long bike ride around town. What he finds is a cheesy theme park called Water Wizz that looks to have been last renovated in the mid-1980s. It's run by an overgrown man-child named Owen (Sam Rockwell), who probably hit his peak during that same era. The two form a friendship, though. Owen gives him a job, and Duncan starts to come out of his shell.

The film is a classic coming-of-age story that has a thorough command of character, setting, and pace. "The Way, Way Back" is co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won Oscars for their adapted screenplay for "The Descendants." This is a confident, little movie that doesn't try to over-reach. With this basic premise, Faxon and Rash had plenty opportunity to throw in all sorts of scatological humor. They could have veered into teen sex comedy territory. Or, they could have "quirked" it up as so many indie comedies try and do.

Instead, the story here unfolds naturally. Duncan isn't one of those quippy teen refugees from the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon sitcoms nor is he some oddball Wes Anderson or Todd Solondz concoction. He's a 14-year-old boy who is at a critical juncture of his life. In two years, he could be lost to dysfunction, to bad influences, or to apathy. But Rockwell's Owen senses in him a kindred spirit not in need of a push, but more of a couple of well-timed nudges. And there is genuine sadness and even a bit of fear for Duncan when his time at the park draws to a close and he has to move on without the place and the friendships he forged there.

At the same time, the movie isn't SO focused on the Duncan-Owen dynamic that there aren't other performances to enjoy and other delights to be hand. Faxon and Rash both play theme-park vets who both enable Owen in their own ways. Carell, meanwhile, does a great job playing a jerk. You can sense the seething inadequacies of the man as he looks to control everyone around him. He's quite effortless here.

This is one of those movies that if you don't go expecting to bust a gut laughing or needing a box of Kleenex afterwards to dry your eyes, you might just find yourself surprised at how much it grows on you both as you watch it and as you think about in the days after seeing it. I personally look forward to going way, way back to the cinema in the coming days or weeks and reliving this little summer delight over again. I give it an 8 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed May 23, 2013 / Posted July 5, 2013


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