Sometimes you have to praise a movie backwards. In a season of clamorous action pictures, dopey comedies and grisly horrors, “The Way Way Back” is notable for what it doesn’t do.
It doesn’t yank on your heartstrings, though you’ll be touched gently at last.
It doesn’t insult your intelligence. (Indeed, it presumes you have some left.)
It doesn’t give the teenage protagonist an earth-shaking epiphany or romance; he just grows a little, psychologically and romantically, over an abbreviated summer at a Massachusetts beach house.
The villain (who isn’t all that much of a villain) doesn’t get a humiliating comeuppance.
Nor does the hero (who isn’t all that much of a hero) get a thunderous triumph.
If I tell you that Steve Carell and Toni Collette have key supporting roles, you may start thinking back to “Little Miss Sunshine,” another coming-of-age-and-awareness picture that became a quiet sensation seven summers ago.
The comparison works: Both movies leave us smiling and feeling connected to the struggling families at their cores.
“Way Back” writers Jim Rash (a Charlotte native) and Nat Faxon open their story with an experience the 14-year-old Rash had in the late ’80s.
Unconsciously abrasive Trent (Steve Carell) asks 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) how he rates himself on a scale of one to 10.
“A six,” Duncan mutters.
Trent, who dates Duncan’s mom, Pam (Collette), says he sees the kid as a three, because he doesn’t take advantage of enough opportunities. The rest of the picture presents Duncan with chances to grow.
He meets the equally lonely, disaffected daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) of the next-door neighbor, an amiably brassy alcoholic (Alison Janney). He learns Trent can’t keep his authoritarian nature in check or his hands off a summer resident (Amanda Peet).
Most crucially, Duncan stumbles across Owen (Sam Rockwell), an attendant at Water Wizz water park, who becomes his surrogate dad.
Faxon and Rash follow a common template for teen maturity movies, but they put their own wry spin on many scenes. (You’ll see Faxon playing easygoing Roddy, and Rash, wearing a huge pimp mustache, as germ-phobic Lewis.)
They also make their directing debut together, maintaining the right relaxed rhythm.
Sometimes they defy credulity. I didn’t believe Water Wizz (a real water park in East Wareham, Mass.) would put a 14-year-old on its payroll without asking permission of his mom.
Nor did I buy the scene where Duncan endeared himself to angry customers with clunky break-dance moves.
Yet the relationships ring true: Trent’s clumsy attempts at being father-like, Duncan’s longing for a girl he will never get to know well – an older girl, drawn to him at the moment just because he’s the least annoying person in her world – and Pam’s desire to stand up for herself while looking for a mate on whom to lean.
In a Hollywood film, the roguish, lazy but appealing Owen would probably strike a romantic spark with Pam and create an idealized family unit for Duncan.
Here Owen reminds the kid that he isn’t a useful role model, just a good-natured slacker who has halfway burned out and doesn’t want his young pal to do the same.
That kind of honesty is always rare in films, never more so than during a summer of noise and nonsense.