Ensemble cast shines in The Way, Way Back

Fox Searchlight photo by CLAIRE FOLGER -- Clockwise from center, Liam James as Duncan, Toni Collette as Pam, Steve Carell as Trent, Rob Corddry as Kip and Amanda Peet as Joan share a meal at a summer beachhouse in a scene from 'The Way, Way Back.'
Fox Searchlight photo by CLAIRE FOLGER -- Clockwise from center, Liam James as Duncan, Toni Collette as Pam, Steve Carell as Trent, Rob Corddry as Kip and Amanda Peet as Joan share a meal at a summer beachhouse in a scene from 'The Way, Way Back.'

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars

During a summer at the beach that could be 1969 or 2009, 14-year-old Duncan fits the part of the classic outcast. Paraphrasing an old Britney Spears song, he’s not a boy, not yet a man, and uncomfortably stuck in an awkward, lonely spot.

Adolescence poses universal challenges, of course, but Duncan is also condemned to frequently be in the insufferable company of his mother’s boyfriend.

In The Way, Way Back, the new film from the writers of that wistful, Oscar-winning 2011 drama, The Descendants, Trent has decided he wants to marry Duncan’s divorced mom, Pam. But instead of playing nice guy with Duncan, Trent’s relationship with him is defined by a continuous spew of disapproving words and looks. It qualifies as verbal, attitudinal abuse.

Steve Carell, in a dramatic role, plays Trent sans compromise. Famous for his comedy, Carell makes a nasty villain, a realistic character who’s a monster of the human kind, a bully many people would prefer to keep their distance from. Unfortunately, Duncan’s mom can’t see Trent for the bad guy he really is.

Toni Collette, making a lot of her supporting role as a woman who’s made a bad choice, co-stars as Pam. Also in the exceptional ensemble cast of The Way, Way Back — which opens Friday, July 19, in New Orleans and is scheduled to open in Baton Rouge July 26 — are Allison Janney as Trent’s saucy beach neighbor and Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry as Trent’s beach-residing friends.

A few defining moments of Duncan and Trent’s relationship open The Way, Way Back. A subsequent, unexpected relationship, however, sets Duncan on a far more positive path.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — The Way, Way Back writers and, making their directorial debut, its directors, too — found the ideal young actor to play the all-important role of Duncan. Liam James, a Canadian actor who was 15 during the movie’s production last summer, embodies adolescent angst and insecurity.

Hunched, often silent, adrift in a fog of confusion, Duncan would seem to have a long way to go before he finds some measure of happiness. By following his instincts and placing as much time and space between himself and Trent, his mother and their friends, all of them adults behaving like adolescents, Duncan begins his journey.

He makes his escape on a borrowed little girl’s bicycle. The bike provides transportation to the Water Wizz Water Park, perhaps an unlikely locale to find a fortifying change of outlook.

Faxon and Rash, basing their script on their own summertime teen experiences, craft a rich, authentic story. Key characters face their flaws and evaluate their situations. Their realizations and growth are tangible on screen. That’s especially true for Duncan and his mentor, Owen, the water park manager.

Owen, played with welcoming humor and a dash of old-fashioned American cockiness by the well-cast Sam Rockwell, suffers from his own arrested development. James’ portrayal of Duncan may be the searching soul of the movie, but Rockwell gives the project its warmly beating heart.

Summer movies’ coming of age stories are nothing new, but The Way, Way Back instantly claims a distinguished place in the genre. A sweet and sour summer song of a movie, it’s one of this season’s best reasons to go to the movies.