Adolescence.Growing up during those awkward, tumultuous years is a novelty every person must experience and each viewer can establish an immediate kinship to. Hence big studio and independent Hollywood’s consensual fondness for coming of age dramas and the “wonder years” they represent. By no means a criticism, there is an accepted quirkiness about this focal point in humanity that is universal. Yet, when Nat Faxon and Jim Rash signed onto to write their first directorial effort on the subject, we all should have guessed it’d be something far more authentic and substantial than just another “dramedy.”Faxon and Rash, two writers/actors (the latter of whom plays the Dean on Community) that came out of nowhere with their stunning adaptation of The Descendants, are rapidly establishing themselves as sincere translators of the everyday human experience. Their screenplay for The Descendants, which won an Oscar, did not turn a drama about the long goodbye of a parent into something snarky or knowingly important. It merely lived with three people, one of whom is a grieving man that just discovered his dying wife was having an affair, in a moment of sadness. And they found the beauty and humor of that moment without ever audibly checking off a box in the “Indie Dramedy Formula.” That level of honest respect for their audience and characters comes shimmering through another beachside story of a family that has long given up on being traditional.Friday’s upcoming The Way, Way Back is the journey of Duncan (Liam James), a teen on the vacation to Hell. Duncan is the kind of boy who is only a few years off from falling into a swimming pool and being seduced by Mrs. Robinson. In the physical, he is with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) as they road trip to his beach house for the summer. But internally, he is still in agony from his parents’ messy divorce and a life floating him by. The suffering is only compounded by Carell’s sadistically friendly stepfather who ends every putdown with the word, “bud,” as if he is doing a favor to a 14-year-old by ranking him a “three” out of 10 in terms of likability.Duncan is accompanied on the trip by Steph (Zoe Levin), Trent’s daughter, but is ultimately condemned to be the whipping boy of entertainment for bored adults pretending they’re still in their 20s. Besides Trent, there is a hilariously mothering neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), an overly touchy neighbor who keeps passing Trent stolen glances. Sure, there is Betty’s lovely and equally anti-social daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), but talking to her would require Duncan to open his mouth. And every time he even attempts the sensation, Trent is there to muzzle it.The single place Duncan can find solace in his misery is at a dilapidated water park that feels like a Lost World to the way, way back times of the 1980s. It is run by the stern Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) and her live-in boyfriend/effortlessly charming manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell); a beach bum sage for a kid drowning in the shallows. Owen, along with a colorful cast of supporting water park helpers, may be Duncan’s last chance to grab a lifeline.The Way, Way Back is a sweetly wonderful coming of age tale. Not because it reinvents the genre, but because it finds the simple truths in it. Unlike most cinematic teens who have a magical summer at the pool, Duncan feels like a true introvert with a life that is subtly and ruinously being destroyed by circumstance. James brings a desperation to the kid that is at once palpable, but never pathetic. The character latches onto the false hope of a father calling him to come to San Diego because it is better than the unending misery at home, one shared by his mother. Collette likewise finds a believability as to why she would stick by a man like Trent when her other option is to live in the squalor of a tiny apartment that came when her husband abruptly left for a girl 20 years younger. She is no more in the wrong for being there than Duncan is for blindly wanting to also leave her for the absent father; they are victims who cannot see the strength in themselves, much less in one another.And as their victimizer, Carell turns in a performance unlike any one would expect from the comedian. Never before taken as the alpha male type, Carell inhabits Trent’s tight sweaters and mean-spirited smirks with a believability and friendly coldness that sweeps across the film like a storm gust on the dunes. He is not just the passive aggressive villain, he is a truly malicious and cruel presence that feels like he is quietly hoping Duncan hurts himself, saving him the trouble of shipping the brat off one day.But in the end, this is still an earnest story of growing up and the movie earns its happy undertones thanks to a group of wonderful supporting performances. Robb, likely tired of playing “fabulous” on the CW, submits an endearing turn as the girl next door and her onscreen mother Janney sparkles as a lighthouse of fussy superficiality, even making her 10-year-old son with a lazy eye wear an eye patch. But the real hilarity and warmth of the movie unwaveringly belongs to Sam Rockwell.
One of the most underrated character actors working today, Rockwell is magnificent as the outgoing slacker who treats the water park like his life calling. The chlorine-hued pools and faded slides speak to him like wheat fields whisper to Kevin Costner. Instantly, he takes a shine to the dour Duncan and brings joy to the kid and film by hiring him for the summer as his sidekick.The rest of the pool park’s staff is littered with comedic talent, including Faxon and Rash themselves as polar opposite presences on Duncan’s personality. Faxon, dressed like a latter day Tony Hawk in T-shirts and swim trunks, passes on to Duncan the best pro tips for ogling girls in bikinis while Rash demonstrates that there are even more miserable people in the world when he plays a swimming pool attendant who claims to have an allergic reaction to water.All these varying influences bring Duncan and the film to a higher place than most dramedies, because the dramatic beats are so damn real. When Duncan’s two worlds collide in the third act, complete with Owen’s giddy welcoming of Trent, we realize like Duncan’s mother how moving this experience has been for all involved. It is a slice of life movie that soars down the water-soaked tunnel with many predictable twists and turns. But when it lands that big splash at the end, the whole experience is so gratifying that audiences will want to ride it again. That is the mark of a great movie.Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars