'Way, Way Back' sits in summer's comfort zone

| Thursday, July 18, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Some movies are just comfortable.

There's no better way to describe them. They're good but not necessarily great. But there's something about them, a familiarity, like the groove of a favorite old song, that makes you feel like you could watch them again and again.

That's true of “The Way, Way Back,” a movie that feels like a greatest-hits montage of summer coming-of-age films.

It's written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also play small roles. They already have an Oscar for writing, with Alexander Payne, “The Descendants.” This film has a pretty-big-name cast, including Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and Allison Janney. But it's the lesser-known Liam James to whom Faxon and Rash entrust their movie, and he doesn't let them down.

First, however, an automobile lesson. The way, way back, for those who were never carted around in gargantuan station wagons, refers to the seat at the back of the car that actually faces out, toward the traffic behind you.

Duncan (James) is riding in the back, while his mom, Pam (Toni Collette) sleeps. Trent (Carell), the driver, asks Duncan where, on a scale of 1 to 10, he thinks he ranks. Duncan shrugs out a 6; Trent says he thinks more like a 3.

And that tells you a lot about what you need to know about Trent. He's a jerk, basically, who is dating Pam. The three of them, along with Steph (Zoe Levin), Trent's daughter, are heading to Trent's beach house for the summer in a town on Cape Cod.

Sounds great, right? That's because you're not considering this through the eyes of an awkward 14-year-old boy, something of an outcast, who doesn't fit in at home, much less in a place that's strange to him.

Strange to everyone, actually, to some degree. Steph openly scorns Duncan. Trent's neighbor, Betty (Janney) is a sloshy drunk, overly familiar (and very funny). Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), friends of Trent's, show up all the time, drink constantly, and the group of them generally behaves like obnoxious teenagers sneaking their first beers, only every single day of the summer.

The actual teenagers, at least, show some promise. Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Betty's daughter, is cute and friendly to Duncan, who doesn't really know how to handle the attention. But at least it's something.

Then Duncan discovers Water Wizz, a low-rent water park managed by the offbeat Owen (Rockwell). He's a bit of a loon, cracking wise, blowing off work whenever possible, to the consternation of his would-be girlfriend Caitlin (Rudolph). But he's also cool and gets what it's like to be Duncan in a way more elemental than the unlikable Trent ever could.

There will be job offers, misunderstandings, betrayals, breakdowns and the occasional kiss, both heartwarming and heartbreaking along the way. Again, it's well-mined territory. But what makes “The Way, Way Back” stand out, in addition to uniformly outstanding performances (Rockwell, as ever, is especially good, but so is Carell, playing against type) is Faxon and Rash's obvious familiarity with what Duncan is going through.

Bill Goodykoontz is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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