His newly divorced mother's latest boyfriend Trent verbally insults him, sporting the sensitivity of the uptight, arrogant jerk he'll soon prove he is. The vacation home, called Riptide, has a next door neighbor named Betty, an alcoholic who bulldozes her way through life, and the tongue-tied Duncan's best line to that neighbor's cute daughter is, "I think it'll be a hot summer," which she reacts to as the awkward effort it represents. Duncan will soon escape on a pink bicycle too small for him to a water park where he'll find refuge and a surrogate father of sorts in Owen, a smart aleck manager with a soft heart.
That soft and sensitive heart makes this film resonate with all our lives. Writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash show again their perceptive attentiveness to the pain, discomfort, and importance of flawed families, in other words, all of them. With Alexander Payne, they won the screenwriting Oscar for "The Descendants," which has echoes here with adulterous betrayal and anger over absent parents. The dominant mood is comical, as Duncan predictably earns respect, shows character, and matures nicely. The film goes slack occasionally in several middle scenes, but other brief details mine the depths, especially one episode with the silly board game Candyland that reveals volumes, as, in fact, our smallest moments often do.
The actors make the film sing, with a subdued Liam James making Duncan believable and appealing but not pathetic, a great balancing act. Steve Carell courageously doesn't sugar coat the unappealing Trent. Toni Collette shows the struggle and yearning of the mother, and Allison Janney as the loud-mouthed boozer has a great time. As Owen, Sam Rockwell steals the film, a goofball who understands Duncan immediately, and responds caringly, not a new construct but brilliant in Rockwell's performance. And don't miss writers Nat Faxon as Roddy and Jim Rash as Lewis, both funny, supporting characters. "The Way Way Back" is, above all, an entertaining summer movie with some touching truths at its core. At a Landmark Theatre and other cinemas.