There's something inherently formulaic about summer coming-of-age movies. A quirky, awkward and misunderstood kid takes a summer off from regular life and finds a way — at the beach or by the pool — to, well, come of age, often with the help of an equally quirky adult. Summer ends. Life is changed.
And that's precisely what happens in "The Way, Way Back," featuring an expert cast led by Steve Carell, Toni Collette and the terrific Sam Rockwell as that quirky adult.
Luckily, though, the film, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is done with enough skill and delicacy that its adherence to formula doesn't matter quite so much. Yes, it could have been a better movie had it taken bolder plot turns. But that likely won't diminish the smile on your face — and very possibly the tear on your cheek — as you exit this charmer of a film.
About that title: "The Way, Way Back" refers to the back seat in a station wagon that faces out to the road — the way, WAY back seat.
Which is where 14-year-old Duncan, played by sensitive newcomer Liam James, sits as he reluctantly heads for a beach vacation with his divorced mom Pam (Collette) and her boyfriend, Trent.
The first scene tells you all you need to know about Trent, a very unlikable character played by the very likable Carell. At the wheel next to Duncan's sleeping mom, he barks a question to the teenager: How would you rate yourself, on a scale of 10? When Duncan hazards a weak "six," Trent replies that in his view, the boy's a mere three. How's that for an aspiring step-dad?
It takes a while for Pam to notice her beau's shortcomings. Meantime, Duncan is trying to find a way to pass the time. He grabs a pink girl's bike from the yard and heads to the Water Wizz water park.
There he finds park manager Owen (Rockwell, in the film's most entertaining performance), a guy he's met briefly in town. Owen is not too responsible, but full of fun and armed with a wisecrack (and an '80s reference) for any occasion. He gives Duncan a job and sets about removing the boy from his shell.
Aiding him is a warm-hearted crew of park workers, including Owen's love interest (Maya Rudolph, her comic talents mostly wasted here). Faxon and Rash, the director-screenwriters, play park workers as well, and Rash is particularly funny as the forlorn, germophobic salesman at an equipment booth nobody comes to. (Faxon and Rash, both TV actors as well, won an Oscar for co-writing "The Descendants.")
Duncan's new job gives the boy a sense of purpose and community. Meanwhile, at the beach, Pam's trying to make things work. Carell manages to make Trent interesting even as you hate him, and as for Collette, she's heartbreaking as a single mom desperate to give her son a stable life. Watch her expressive, elastic face fall as she balances that determination with the recognition that Trent isn't who she thought he was.
Also noteworthy here: Allison Janney as a neighbor with an absurdly dark tan, a taste for cocktails and a way-too-loose tongue; Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry as Trent's married, fun-loving friends; and AnnaSophia Robb as a romantic interest for Duncan.
Will Duncan learn about himself as the summer progresses? Will he overcome obstacles to his self-esteem? Take a guess. Luckily, the ending is less predictable and sappy than it could have been.
And actually, "The Way, Way Back" feels something like summer itself: It meanders a bit, it's a little lacking in structure, but it's full of small memorable moments — and you're sad when it's over.
Rating: PG-13 for, according to the Motion Picture Association of America: "thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material"
Running time: 103 minutes