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Wonder years

The Way Way Back swaps cynicism for tenderness

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The Way Way Back is a sweet coming-of-age comedy, which, even in its darkest moments, manages to be far less cynical than me. I hesitate to use the expression "coming-of-age," but there's simply no better way to put this film.

The story belongs to 14-year-old Duncan, played by Liam James with a laudably authentic awkwardness. The adults are easily recognizable: There's Duncan's recently divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). They're off to spend the summer at the beach for some modern family bonding, whether they like it or not.

Next door lives Betty, a boozy single mother on a permanent vacation from life. Allison Janney plays this part so convincingly that one starts to wonder if these characters are total clichés or if it is life itself that's so derivative. Betty has a son with a lazy eye named Peter and a bored, impossibly beautiful teenage daughter named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who seems to have been plucked from the sky and placed at Duncan's feet in order to be crushed on. Another set of grownups, the couple Kip and Joan (Rob Corrdry and Amanda Peet), show up with weed and booze to stir the pot even further. Susanna tells Duncan that this beach community is "like spring break for grownups," which is both true and a nice moment—movies don't always remember that teenagers are often brilliant.

Duncan is shy and ineffectual; the kid wears pants and socks on the beach. Carrell is a kind of villain and a bully, but when he callously tells Duncan that he could use a little more personality, I couldn't help but agree.

Life aquatic.
  • Life aquatic.

What the film decides Duncan needs is a secret summer job at a water park that time forgot, and so he wanders in, as if led there by destiny, and sits fully clothed on a picnic table, waiting to be swooped up. This is where my cynicism as a disgruntled movie critic needs to make a graceful exit. In real life, I think this kid would sit there unnoticed forever. Like so many young boys just like him, he would spend that summer going further and further into himself. The neglect of his mother would begin to shape his opinion of all women, while the humiliation suffered at the hands of a thoughtless stepfather would get pushed down inside until he became a passive aggressive, cancerous adult.

But what am I saying? This is a summer comedy. Instead of all that, Duncan is adopted by the gregarious Owen, played by Sam Rockwell in an effortless and well-written comedic performance. Owen is a big kid himself and naturally gravitates toward other kids for friends. The park's manager is Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who doesn't always want to be a den mother but graciously accepts the role anyway. The friendship between Owen and Duncan is tender and beautiful, and that allows me to forgive the fact that it comes out of nowhere for no good reason.

Not that anybody reads movie reviews looking for literature recommendations, but if you see this film, and it moves you and you want to take the feeling further, I recommend Charles D'Ambrosio's short story, "The Point." It's similar in setting, character and theme, but with an added grit and weight that will ruin your life, in a good way. The Way Way Back has its heaviness, but in the end it floats to the surface and lodges. Like a pleasant cancer. In your heart.

The Way Way Back continues at the Carmike 12.

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