A boy breaks out of his shell and comes of age in the good-hearted dramedy “The Way, Way Back”

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In The Way, Way Back, the writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the outlandish dean of TV’s “Community”) deliver a charming coming-of-age story centered on a teenage boy named Duncan (Liam James). Duncan goes away for the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her insensitive boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s snooty teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan is a shy, awkward teen and his summer quickly becomes one of dread and loneliness as everyone else around him seems to fit right in with their carefree, summer atmosphere.

Growingly frustrated, Duncan eventually goes out to explore the world around him more and comes upon Owen (Sam Rockwell)—a fast-talking slacker who runs a nearby water park. Through Owen’s carefree influence, Duncan loosens up a bit and his shell begins to break open as he discovers a bit of happiness (and a job) at the water park. He even manages to open up a bit to a cute girl next door named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

While we’ve seen this plot many times before—awkward kid comes of age—and although The Way, Way Back doesn’t exactly touch on any new territory in the subject, Faxon and Rash’s screenplay nonetheless brought a smile to my face from beginning to end. I ended up finding in it a refreshing bit of “slice-of-life” fresh air that is needed during these summer months of big, loud popcorn movies. The last summer “little” film I can recall that charmed me as much was Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” a few years ago.

James fits the role like a glove and makes you care about his character and his plight. The cast is overall superb. Collette is excellent as always here as Duncan’s suffering mom and Carell was nicely cast against type. The film also features notable work by a scene-stealing Allison Janney as Susanna’s loopy (i.e. drunk) mom, Maya Rudolph as a frustrated co-worker/potential love interest for Owen, and Rash has a small, amusing role as a down-trodden fellow park employee.

But aside from James, the standout by far is the immensely talented (and underrated) Rockwell. Rockwell completely shines here as the irresponsible but highly likeable Owen. You can easily see how a character like Owen would play such an influence on Duncan in terms of opening him up to the world around him. It takes an Owen type to do it, and Rockwell embodies the charisma to an absolute tee. As a “recovering” Duncan-type myself, I was sentimental and a bit envious that I never ran into an Owen to help me break out of my shell back when I was coming of age. It’s also perhaps because of that relatability that I found The Way, Way Back such a joy to watch.

Overall, The Way, Way Back is a funny and pleasant winner of a film. It’s been promoted in the media as from the studio that brought us Little Miss Sunshine and Juno—and it fits nicely alongside those films as a being another little “indie” that audiences should make it a point to see.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

About The Way, Way Back:

A socially awkward 14-year-old boy reluctantly goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend and her boyfriend’s daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan breaks out from his loneliness and forms a friendship with Owen, the carefree manager of the Water Wizz water park.

For more on The Way, Way Back, visit the Fox Searchlight Web site or the film’s Facebook page.

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