One of most pain-filled performances I have ever seen in the movies comes from young actor Liam James as a teenager struggling to survive adolescence in the poignant and comical coming-of-age drama "The Way, Way Back."
James plays Duncan, a mercurial youth cast adrift in a world without his divorced father, bridled by a sad and struggling mother he doesn't understand, and a smarmy jerk he just can't stand, and this guy's auditioning for the job of Duncan's next dad.
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"The Way, Way Back"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Zoe Levin
Directed by: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Other: A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations and drug use. 103 minutes
One glance at this kid and you instantly get him. Confused, frightened, angry and frustrated because he feels completely powerless to effect any positive change in his life.
Or so he believes.
"The Way, Way Back" begins in the way, way back of a station wagon driven by mom Pam (the always engaging Toni Collette) on the way to a summer beach house for a long, long vacation.
The tone of Duncan's relationship with his mom's new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, coating his sentences with a thick film of condescension) becomes instantly apparent in Trent's opening remarks.
He badgers Duncan into rating himself as a human being, from 1 to 10. When Duncan finally replies with a "6," Trent contradicts him and says he deserves only a "3."
It's going to be a long summer.
And he's living next door to Allison Janney's extroverted alcoholic, an embarrassingly candid mother of a terrorized daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) who wants to crawl into the unpainted woodwork when Mom starts popping off too much of their private information.
Poor Duncan takes to riding a bike into town just to escape his living nightmare with Mom, the neighbors, Trent and Trent's teenage mean-girl daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) from an earlier marriage.
Then, one day, Duncan ventures into Water Wizz, the local water park, the domain of a perennial staff fixture named Owen, a wonderfully wrought character brought to spontaneous life by Sam Rockwell.
Oozing charm, quick wit and rebellious irreverence, Owen quickly takes a liking to Duncan, perhaps because he reminds him of himself an era ago, which clearly must be the 1980s, given his arcane cultural references from the period.
So, we've got a frustrated, misunderstood teen, malfunctioning parents and a quirky, lovable mentor. All standard-operating material in the coming-of-age genre so far,
Wait. "The Way, Way Back" has been written by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who won a screenplay Academy Award with Alexander Payne for 2011's "The Descendants"), making their auspicious co-directorial debut. (They play supporting roles at Water Wizz, too.)
They stuff this movie with lots of charm, good humor and a really, really odd sense of nostalgia.
"Way, Way Back" takes place in present day. Yet, the drama radiates the vibe of a more innocent, pre-cell phone world where texting, sexting, emailing and Web surfing have been left behind in a culturally sealed community.
But it works.
It works because Faxon and Rash remember what pressure points to push on men's psyches to recall the living H. E. Double-Hockey-Sticks that adolescence was for many.
It works because the impeccable cast nails the humanity and vulnerability of their characters.
It works because Rockwell conjures up the most attractive character of his acting career thus far, an empathetic father figure who constantly challenges young Duncan with sarcasm to break out of his funk and see the possibilities of his world.
And it works because Liam James creates a little piece of performance magic as the tormented, struggling kid who many guys, if not all guys, used to be, in the way, way, back of their lives.