Duncan (Liam James), an introverted 14-year-old, comes into his own over the course of a comedic summer when he forms unlikely friendships with the gregarious manager of a rundown water park and the misfits who work there.

UPDATED 4:52 PM - 25 Feb 2014

Familiar premise made real by strong performances.

Certain movie story shapes never go away. No matter what the dominant trend is they turn up every season. Some are like unwanted guests and others like old friends. It just depends on the moviegoer’s own appetite. Or maybe their tolerance?

[The] tricky tone provides equal time for genuine pain and pathos as well as some really big laughs.

Consider this new low-key comedy written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. These guys who are both actors and appear here in support roles to great effect, are smart and funny, two attributes that sum up equally The Descendants, which they co-wrote for director Alexander Payne and which won them an Oscar. That film was brightened and enriched by its unique take on parenting and familial dysfunction.

But summarise the set up of The Way, Way Back in cold print and it may sound too much like a rehearsal of routine material that’s played way too often: It’s a summer holiday. The hero is a 14-year-old boy who has no idea about being cool. His mother has a new boyfriend that doesn’t like the kid one bit. This would-be step dad has a teen daughter from his first marriage and she’s meaner than a beach full of blue bottles. The adults fill the long idle moments with drink and gossip. Mum, a little timid in emerging from a post-divorce nightmare, doesn’t want to ruin a good thing so she adopts the role of peacemaker. Meanwhile the kids wish they were somewhere else and refuse to give into the numbing boredom by looking for trouble, which could mean getting in above their heads with romantic longing and impulsive adventures"¦

The small miracle of this likeable, well-acted and carefully written film is that the overly familiar coming of age plot doesn’t really matter. That’s partly because Faxon and Rash negotiate the material with a tricky tone that provides equal time for genuine pain and pathos as well as some really big laughs. It’s also got to do with the casting, which is just great.

Steve Carrell plays Trent, the mother’s arsehole boyfriend and the actor never allows his funny side to intrude on the character. It’s a risky strategy because the guy is so oppressively obnoxious it quickly becomes claustrophobic; in the film’s very first scene he tells Duncan (Liam James), our main character, that he rates him a '3/10’ when it comes to chicks and cool.

That little conversation burns a hole in Duncan’s ego and the rest of the movie in a way is about how the kid tries to patch the wound; it’s a deft performance, where James is prepared to be unlikeable (and indeed he can be an intolerable sad sack) but he’s also generous and capable of real courage too.

At first Duncan looks for support from his mum, but when he observes how Trent manipulates the situation, making his mother vulnerable to hard choices, the kid is pressured into backing off (he feels his mother’s anguish, but resents it too.)

Toni Collette plays Pam, the mum, and it’s a very nice turn on how hard it is to balance romance and parenting. You really feel Pam’s agony at the stakes involved. This sub-plot about mother-son buddy love is one of the best things in the film (and there is too little of it.)

Indeed Duncan’s domestic set-up is a hell of awkward manners and un-met expectations. The blond teen goddess next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) offers a cool promise of something special, but such encounters are fraught with peril.

It’s only when Duncan wanders into the town’s tourist attraction, Water Wizz, a decayed and campy aquatic amusement park that had its one shining moment in the 1980s, that he starts to edge close to something like fun.

The star of Water Wizz is Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, who seems to be a staff member, but it appears he specialises in bugger-all and wise cracks. He’s 40 probably, but he acts 18. Owen picks off Duncan straight away as a stray in need of some special care. So he gives Duncan a job and offers the kind of life lessons that only someone who has grown up believing that the on-screen antics of say Steve Martin and Bill Murray offer a road map for life.

Which is to say that Rockwell is deliciously funny in this film; he has that shock and awe deadpan delivery thing – very Saturday Night Live – down. When a staffer explains earnestly that the park has a 'situation", Rockwell adopts his best version of Steve McQueen cool and solemnly intones: 'homicide?" It’s not a joke exactly, but it’s a big laugh because the crack is so left field (and don’t worry; there’s two dozen moments like it, so forgive me the spoiler.) Incidentally the crisis turns out to be a spontaneous outbreak of break dancing, one of the many suggestions that the film may have been at first conceived as an '80s period piece if it weren’t for the film’s very low budget (reportedly under US$5m.)

It’s a busy movie full of character digressions and subplot and they make it fun to watch. Still, what I like most about it is Rockwell’s Owen. It isn’t quite his lunatic energy; it’s in the way he gladly and selflessly adopts the role of Duncan’s protector and pal (and Owen never lets the kid quite know what he’s doing.) That’s what gives this smart-arsey guy (and the movie) an authentic sweetness.

True The Way, Way Back is a chestnut: the lonely kid looking for emotional nourishment and finding it in an unlikely 'special’ friend. But for some of us that’s a story that never gets old.

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1 hour 36 min