Much of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s summer-breeze comedy “The Way, Way Back” feels familiar, but in a good way, like a comfortably rumpled beach house you’re happy to return to year after year. The film, set in a vacation town on the Massachusetts shore, features just such a house, but not everyone in it is happy.
Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is there with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), whose self-important boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) owns the house. The trio, along with Trent’s aloof teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), have arrived for a sun-drenched holiday, but tensions flare between Trent and Duncan, and it looks likely to be a very, very long summer.
James (previously seen as Sarah Linden’s hapless son on TV’s “The Killing”) wonderfully portrays a kid who doesn’t quite fit in: his shoulders slump, he seems uncomfortable in his clothes (which are, as he’s all too aware, not quite cool), he never knows quite what to say to the bikini-clad girls on the beach.
He’s mystified by his mother’s infatuation with Trent, and by how quickly she seems to get swallowed up in a whirl of neighbors and parties and drinking (“It’s like spring break for adults,” one of the girls tells Duncan), leaving him on his own. But soon Duncan finds a home: at the Water Wizz water park, where an extroverted employee named Owen (Sam Rockwell), perhaps sensing that the kid needs a pal, befriends him.
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Nothing of great importance really happens in “The Way, Way Back,” but the movie wonderfully captures the heat-slowed rhythms of summer, the kid’s-eye paradise of a modest water park, the way a group of longtime employees form a family, and how it takes just one friend to make a lonely boy feel like he belongs.
Its cast is a pleasure, particularly Allison Janney as a motormouthed neighbor (“I’m so mad at them, I don’t even want to get into it,” she says, and then, after the tiniest of beats, gets into it), Collette as a loving mom who’s a bit blinded by that summer sun, and most of all Rockwell, playing a constant performer who, underneath his dude bluster, is lonely, too.
And its ending, in the “way back” seat of an old-school station wagon, is low-key perfection: Things aren’t fixed — life often isn’t like a movie — but nonetheless, Duncan will be OK.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org