There’s something slightly formulaic and familiar about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s coming-of-age film The Way, Way Back, but not enough to dampen its crowd-pleasing charm. Liam James stars as Duncan, a sad-eyed 14-year-old misfit who’s forced to spend the summer with his mother (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his teenage daughter (Zoe Levin) at a rustic beach house. It may not sound like much of a prison sentence, but his potential new stepdad’s endless bullying reinforces Duncan’s feelings of loser inadequacy. Then one day he pedals his mortifyingly girly pink bike to Water Wizz, an Adventureland-style amusement park. There he meets Sam Rockwell’s slacker savant, Owen, who notices how unhappy the kid is and makes it his personal crusade to pry him out of his shell. Rockwell, an actor who’s been so good for so long that he’s somehow been taken for granted in an industry that’s never quite known what to do with him, gooses the film with a manic sense of motormouthed anarchy. He’s like Bill Murray in Meatballs — an anti-authoritarian merry prankster with a Hawaiian shirt and a heart of gold. And naturally, lump-in-the-throat lessons are learned by Labor Day. Faxon and Rash, the Oscar-winning writing team behind 2011’s The Descendants, are experts at recognizing when the mood of their directorial debut needs lightening to prevent it from spiraling into an after-school special. I just wish that more of the film felt as wildly unpredictable as Rockwell’s performance. B
'WAY BACK' PLAYBACK Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, and Liam James are among the many faces in this stellar film (Claire Folger)
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell; Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash; Runtime (in minutes): 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Posted January 17 2015 — 5:04 PM EST
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