Teenagers navigating family dysfunction in a seaside setting, to some degree, accurately describes The Descendants, for which rookie screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won an Oscar.
That brief synopsis also fits their follow-up, The Way, Way Back, a coming-of-age comedy that marks the versatile duo’s directorial debut. But the similarities stop there.
Their second collaboration is a tender and charming account of an angst-ridden teenage loner who finds inspiration in the most unlikely places during an otherwise disastrous vacation.
The story takes place in New England, where 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is dreading his summer. That’s because his emotionally fragile mother (Toni Collette) is forcing him to spend several weeks at the beach house of her obnoxious new boyfriend (Steve Carell), whose overbearing rules and constant putdowns border on abuse.
As a method of escape, Duncan finds solace at a nearby water park operated by Owen (Sam Rockwell), whose carefree exterior masks feelings of regret and insecurity. After agreeing to hire Duncan part-time, he becomes an unusual mentor as he tries to boost Duncan’s self-esteem.
Both directors are veteran actors who currently have roles on popular sitcoms, and Faxon (“Ben and Kate”) and Rash (“Community”) coax excellent performances from their talented ensemble cast. Rockwell channels Bill Murray in Meatballs, yet balances his broad scene-stealing with convincing maturity and sensitivity. Carell brings depth to a change-of-pace role, and James (2012) marks himself as a young actor with promise. The sharp supporting cast includes Allison Janney, Rob Corddry and Maya Rudolph. Faxon and Rash also register memorably in smaller parts.
The film uses its old-fashioned setting to its advantage, lending it a timeless quality. It takes place in the present day, but feels nostalgic thanks to its detailed evocation of seasonal rituals that haven’t changed much for decades. That extends to the outdated station wagon that lends the film its name, courtesy of its seat in the rear from which Duncan endures some verbal torture.
Those heartfelt touches help to smooth out the rough edges in a screenplay that features some predictable story mechanics and occasionally transitions awkwardly between broad comedy and more serious drama.
Ultimately, there are more smiles than big laughs, yet The Way, Way Back also has an authenticity beneath the surface that generates emotional resonance.
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes.