“The Way, Way Back”
 
            Yes, it’s a coming-of-age movie, and it’s focused on the kids, so that the adults are the despicable characters, and the kids are the ones we’re rooting for, because they’re the innocents.  But this one has a persistent sense of humor that saves it from being too maudlin or melodramatic despite its apparent caricatures.
            Duncan (Liam James) is a quiet, sensitive, 14-year-old boy whose divorced Mom, Pam (Toni Collette), has a new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell, in a surprising role not only un-funny, but very unsympathetic).  Trent is one of those insufferable hypocrital windbags who’s always lecturing and criticizing Duncan , especially when Pam is asleep or isn’t around.  He’s decided that he, Pam, Duncan , and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoey Levin) need to take a summer vacation together to his beach house, so they can “bond” as a family.  It’s a good idea, in theory, but this is never going to be one big, happy blended family.
            When they arrive at Trent ’s beach house, they are immediately greeted by old friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), as well as blowsy next-door-neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), whose speech knows no boundaries.  The five adults immediately begin their happy fellowship (aided by considerable alcohol, and even some occasional weed), and most of the time are having hilarious moments with each other while the kids are just left to their own devices.
            Steph just goes and hangs out with her girlfriends on the beach.  Big-mouth Betty has a young son named Peter, and while Betty constantly encourages Duncan to “play” with Peter, she also makes fun of Peter’s wandering right eye (yes, some of the humor is very awkward).  Betty also has a daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), about Duncan ’s age, but she’s also quiet like Duncan , so it takes them a long time to get up the courage to speak to each other at all, and when they do, they find they don’t have much to say.
            Duncan is not completely an angel, either---he acts bored no matter how hard the adults try to include him, and he keeps complaining to his Mom that he would rather be with his Dad (who’s moved to San Diego with his new wife, pretty much removing himself from the picture).  Duncan also witnesses Trent and Joan flirting with each other, and fed up with the self-absorption of the adults, just takes off on a child’s bicycle and finds himself at a local water park, where he just hangs out because he has nothing better to do.  Soon he is noticed by one of the employees there, a young man named Owen (Sam Rockwell).  Owen, sensing that Duncan is at loose ends, invites him to be an employee, and finally Duncan has some direction and purpose, and begins to thrive.  Owen is sort of a goofball with a constant banter, but he takes a liking to the lonely kid, anyway, and becomes a mentor despite himself.
            Meanwhile, the adult situation continues to deteriorate, but Duncan finds just enough courage to start to connect to Susanna, and suddenly the summer’s not looking nearly so awful.
            This film is by turns hilarious and awkward, depressing and exhilarating, with some characters developing positively and others negatively, but it never ceases to be mesmerizing.  It’s a quiet little offering that can’t sustain the weight of “summer blockbuster,” but alongside the CGI giants of Man of Steel, World War Z, White House Down, and the like, it’s the charming alternative movie of the season.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas