Duncan (Liam James), the teenage hero at the center of the summer getaway The Way, Way Back, is hardly an exuberant personality. In fact, he might just be the most painfully awkward teen to ever grace the classic coming-of-age genre. Following his parents’ divorce, he sees the world from a head-hung-low perspective, walks around with a shoulders-forward slouch that in most cases would cause back problems, and has a silent demeanor that causes him to struggle when formulating words, let alone complete phrases around anyone, especially the crush-worthy girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb).

But Duncan, like so many teenagers before him, is on the cusp of the summer that will change his life forever and strengthen his spine, both figuratively and literally — all thanks to the most unlikely source of inspiration: a waterpark. And in true coming-of-age fashion, his journey, the brainchild of writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is peppered with just the right amount of colorful characters and doughy life lessons to make it familiar to anyone who remembers their own childhood, but pleasantly resonant nonetheless.

There are two readings of the film’s nostalgic title that frame Duncan’s story, the first of which is established in the brilliant opening sequence. As he stares blankly out the back window of a clunky old station wagon and is quizzed about his personal self-image, we witness the dismay in Duncan’s eyes as he is driven to a captive summer at the beach with his divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her antagonistic boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) and his Valley Girl-wannabe daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). With his sad gaze aimed straight toward ours, we watch as he watches his already-rocky existence trail “way, way back” in the rearview. No wonder he’s sad.

The title also manifests itself when they reach their destination: a beach town where, as the kids say, “it is Spring Break for adults.” Between the ’80s jams, late night pot-infused campfires and a general sense of adults behaving badly, The Way, Way Back prospers best when it is fluctuating between the likes of Duncan, who so eagerly wants to escape his adolescence, and the adults around him who are ruled by the nostalgia for the simpler days of their yesteryears.

In the meantime, Duncan escapes the only way he can, on a humiliating pink bike that leads him to a makeshift family-away-from-family in the eccentric staff of Water Wizz, a local waterpark run by a carefree, fast-talking man-child named Owen (Sam Rockwell). Inspired by Owen’s chart-your-own-path mantra and questionable but effective mentoring, Duncan learns to speak up for himself and turns an everyday waterpark into the backdrop for his existential awakening.

At the helm of The Way, Way Back, Faxon and Rash, the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of The Descendants, continue to showcase their expert ability to formulate a precise balance between comedy and drama — never letting one overpower the other. Moving from humorous montages of the shenanigans at Water Wizz (including break dancing and after-hours water gun fights) to intense confrontations of family dysfunction, Faxon and Rash transcend the simple genre limitations and paint a beautifully diverse portrait of how being young is both hilarious and devastating at the same time.

As first-time directors, they have also recognized the incredible talent at their disposal and let their cast expand what could have been one-note characters. The undeniable center of an otherwise ensemble piece is James, who, through Duncan, dutifully captures the trials and tribulations of wading through the thick of youth. Duncan’s pains may not be original (broken home, no friends, introverted personality), but it’s James who breaths life into that shell and enlivens a hero that we sympathize with and root for.

Elsewhere in the cast, Carell flips his good-guy persona on its head as the slimy Trent, who constantly knocks Duncan down with his monotone remarks and pompous superiority. It’s a new feeling to despise Carell, but it also shows his range. Allison Janney also turns in a particularly scene-stealing role as Betty, the boozy divorcee next door with a tendency to wear her shameless honesty on her sleeve. Squawking gems like, “I’m off the wagon again, accept it and move on,” Janney is the epitome of an award-worthy supporting role. As is the majority of the cast, including Collette, Robb, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, and even Faxon and Rash, who all populate Duncan’s beachy new world with their own brand of life advice and zany humor.

Yet, even with a cast of Oscar contenders and comedy heavyweights, the true champion of The Way, Way Back is Rockwell, who has been criminally unvalued in Hollywood for years (especially in 2008’s tragically unseen, Moon). As Owen, Rockwell rocks the cool-jock vibe and tinges every word with a sarcasm that is not only intensely funny, but also skillfully reflective of the waterpark manager’s immaturity. Although he aims to be the wiser mentor to Duncan’s lost boy, he more closely aligns with the adults who are letting their thirst for youth cloud their adulthood. Frequently put in his place by Rudolph’s love interest, Owen, and in effect, Rockwell, sustains a fantastic duality between seemingly blissful ignorance and the self-awareness that his youth is behind him and he needs to grow up. One can only hope that such an adeptly delivered role can finally get him some long-overdue recognition.

Ultimately, the story lives and breathes on the pairing of James and Rockwell. In a summer filled with duo-driven films (The Heat, The Internship, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Monsters University, etc.), this just may have the most satisfying and heartwarming of them all. As Owen strives to pull Duncan out of his introverted shell, Rockwell and James create a repertoire that is relatable and refreshing in the best sense. They establish a big-brother, little-brother relationship that makes you smile as it flourishes and justifies the emotion and cheers it elicits. By the time the two eventually let all their walls down, atop an empty waterslide no less, Rockwell and James have primed the audience for an emotional one-two punch that is eloquently delivered and beautifully poignant.

Tapping into the genuine essence of adolescence is not always a simple and fruitful task for filmmakers. While Faxon and Rash’s film may appear to meander down a well-beaten path, Duncan’s journey — thanks to a terrific and well-equipped cast — sidesteps the after-school-special sentimentality that cheapens many coming-of-age efforts. Think of The Way, Way Back as that one waterslide you can never pass up taking a ride on. You may know when the twists and turns are coming, but that doesn’t keep you from gleefully climbing those steps and riding again and again.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

“The Way, Way Back” opened nationwide on July 26.

Trailer Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Featured image: Liam James as Duncan in “The Way, Way Back.” Photo Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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