In their Oscar-winning script for "The Descendants," writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash had remarkable skill for showing the fear and confusion adults face when they reach a major crossroads in their lives. With their latest movie, "The Way Way Back," they use that same sparkling writing style to show the emotions young people deal with during their own life-changing moments.
The crisis in "The Way Way Back" is faced by Duncan (Liam James), a teen dealing with the normal awkwardness of growing up that gets magnified by the new passive-aggressive man (Steve Carell) in his mother's (Toni Collette) life. The battle to dominate her attention is played out in a Connecticut beach house where the new blended family spends the summer.
Duncan's salvation comes in the form of a job at a local water park run by a man (Sam Rockwell) who prefers to face his problems with a childlike attitude.
It would have been easy for this to slip into a typical coming-of-age tale where Duncan goes from wimp to warrior during the course of the summer. Faxon and Rash take the obvious and make it surprising. Duncan has growth, but it's not a typical movie transformation. It feels more organic because it's easy to connect with his small triumphs.
Faxon and Rash, who also directed the movie, brilliantly cast James. He makes the character so socially inept in the beginning that it's amazing he can even speak. He shows an acting skill beyond his years, especially in the opening sequence where Carell's character verbally abuses him.
Equally good is Carell, who takes the smart script and gives it a wicked spin. To some degree, he cares for Duncan, but he still jabs him with verbal barrages. Carell hits the balance exactly right.
On the other end is Rockwell's brilliant performance as the new man/child in Duncan's life. There are times when his character seems like the biggest loser in the water park, but in a wink he becomes sympathetic through the strength and intelligence he shows. Rockwell's always a joy to watch, but it's a superb pleasure here.
There were many opportunities for the film to follow a predictable storyline. But Faxon and Rash continue to show an uncanny ability to take the realities of life and examine them with such caring detail that it keeps our attention. You would have to go way, way back to find a film as touching, funny and smart as this one.
"The Way Way Back," rated PG-13 for language, sexual content, drug use. Stars Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney. Directed by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Running time: 103 minutes. Grade: A-
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TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.