Ever notice that some adults seem less mature than their own children?
That's one premise in "The Way, Way Back," a funny, tender and painfully authentic beachside comedy.
Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is vacationing with his mother, her boyfriend and other assorted adults whose endless drinking, trashy talk and casual sex force him to stake out his own territory and figure out just who he wants to be.
Liam James is seen as Duncan in “The Way, Way Back.” The film is directed by Colin Trevorrow and also features Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney.
In this task, he gets manful help from a fast-talking water-park worker (Sam Rockwell) - just about the only person in the film who seems capable of putting others before himself.
For much of "WWB," we squirm at the ghastly behavior of Duncan's mom (Toni Collette), who won't stand up for him or for herself; of Mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), a controlling sleazebag you'd like to strangle; and a boozy neighbor (Allison Janney) who yaks incessantly about sex and bewails her son's lazy eye - even in the young boy's presence!
The scene where Duncan's fractured "family" plays Candyland is, like many here, brilliantly written, revealing Trent's hypocritical obsession with rules (which don't seem to apply to him) and his refusal to bend for others.
In contrast we have fun-loving, force-of-nature Owen - another of Rockwell's lovable oddballs. Swiftly shepherding Duncan into a water-park job, Owen - who rarely meets a rule he cannot bend - gives the boy a much-needed crash-course in cool.
Yet he's so casual, comical and carefree, you might say he's selfless even in his selflessness.
The movie's climax is a water-slide feat that would be possible only if Owen voluntarily put himself last - but really, that's what he's been doing all along.
Yet Rockwell - a lesser-known actor with a deservedly devoted fan base - makes kindness look way more fun than narcissism.
Thanks to him, "WWB" gets its rather conventional and heartwarming message across with no preaching whatsoever.
Kudos also to AnnaSophia Robb as a fetching fellow-vacationer; slightly older, she too carefully invests in Duncan despite his gut-wrenching awkwardness.
Indeed, "WWB" hits hardest in portraying that fumbling cluelessness of adolescence, putting Duncan through long, painful silences where he has no idea what to say and doesn't even seem to know what he wants.
Middle-aged guys like me will scramble to convince themselves they were never this awkward - that's how close to home the film hits.
Fortunately, Duncan's appalling discomfiture is nicely counterbalanced as the young man gradually comes into his own.
Carell and Janney are fiendishly good, and Collette - playing someone who isn't detestable, merely weak - is a firestorm of emotion; she's almost too good for this kind of picture.
"The Way, Way Back" is a badly needed antidote to this summer's tedious film slate: kind, quirky, sensitive, witty, largely character driven - with heroes and villains you can actually believe in.