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Movie review: ‘The Way Way Back’

The Way, Way Back

Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell

Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements, strong language, sexual content, brief drug material)

Running time: 103 min.

Posted 10:06pm on Thursday, Jul. 04, 2013

The title of The Way, Way Back , opening Friday, refers to the third line of seating in ’60s/’70s-era land-yacht station wagons. It was the row that faced the rear window, a catbird seat that seemed miles from the disapproving glare of the driver.

But the title could also be applied to the infectious, retro spirit of the movie itself, a throwback to a sunnier, more innocent cinematic time — even though the story is set in present day. The directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writing team that struck pay dirt with The Descendants, The Way, Way Back is a wonderfully written and solidly acted ensemble piece that deserves to find an audience amid all this summer’s men of steel.

Liam James ( Psych) is Duncan, the kid who sits in the way, way back of a beautifully restored 1970 Buick Estate wagon so he doesn’t have to interact with its owner, Trent (Steve Carell), the guy who’s dating his divorced mom (Toni Collette). Duncan and his potential new dad don’t get along, so the idea of spending a summer with Trent and the rest of the family (including a self-absorbed sister) at Trent’s beach house doesn’t exactly make Duncan a happy camper.

Things get better and worse after arriving at Trent’s place. Talkative neighbor Betty (a terrific Allison Janney) is going to take some getting used to, but her daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) might make things more interesting. But some of these new adults — like Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and wife Joan (Amanda Peet) — are just as annoying as Trent himself.

But a friendship struck up with Owen (Sam Rockwell), a free-spirited water park employee only a few years younger than Trent, slowly turns into the kind of father-son relationship Duncan has been secretly craving.

It all makes for a warm coming-of-age story in a season in which we’ve already had two very good ones, Mud and The Kings of Summer. Carell proves as adept at playing obnoxious as playing likable, while Collette projects the defeated desperation of a woman who thinks that, as bad as Trent might be, this could be her last chance to have someone in her life.

As with The Descendants, Faxon and Rash ably balance the humorous and the heavy, tipping neither toward the silly nor the mawkish. It’s an impressive debut, if for no other reason than you’ll never look at a ’70s station wagon the same again.

Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens July 19 at AMC Parks at Arlington, AMC Grapevine Mills

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